Thousands of people are waiting in line on the streets of London to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II as she lies in state in Westminster Hall. Is it simply respect and affection for the deceased that is moving people to wait for over 10 hours in the notoriously fickle British weather? Or is something greater at play?
We British love a good queue. We’ll queue for almost no reason at all – or even all on our own with no-one else around! British queues are orderly and civilised affairs with any would-be queue-jumpers being quickly tutted back into order with industrial levels of passive aggression. I live in Austria, where queues frequently aren’t queues at all, but convenient places to stand until you can push ahead, which offends me on a very deep and existential level. God Save The Queue!
What is driving all these people to wait long, uncomfortable hours outside in the drizzle just for few moments of contemplation in front of a coffin containing the body of someone they probably never met? Why are they defying orders to stop queuing, forming a queue for the queue? It is clearly a sign of the deep respect and esteem with which Queen Elizabeth II was regarded both among her own people and others that they will happily take on a bit of discomfort to pay their respects. After all – what are a couple of hours of achy legs, backs and feet compared to the unstinting service Her Majesty gave to the UK for over 70 years?
A unifying, steadying presence
The majority of Britons can only remember Queen Elizabeth. My parents, now both in their 70s, only have vague recollections of King George VI, his death and the Queen’s Coronation Day in 1953. Many have lived and died in the shadow of her reign. Being so used to her predictable steady, reliable presence, it was so easy to simply equate Her Majesty to the institution of the Crown instead of its current embodiment.
Queen Elizabeth was the Crown and the Crown was her. It was easy to start thinking that, once she passed, the monarchy would lose its core, its raison d’être and the whole institution would quickly crumble and extinguish. Right now, of course, it is impossible to tell how things will turn out and whether support for the monarchy will ebb or continue to hold over future generations. For years, my tacit assumption was that it wouldn’t and that either Charles or William would be the final chapter in the story.
However, watching the tremendous live, moving monument of The Queue, I have begun to question that assumption. Yes, people are clearly moved and saddened by the passing of a beloved queen, who was held in high regard for many good reasons.
But there is also something greater at play here: something which goes above and beyond the identity of the deceased monarch whose body currently lies in state in Westminster Hall. It is something that many people may only feel and are unable to articulate. The journalist Will Lloyd spoke to people standing out in the The Queue to find out why they had come to wait their turn to see the coffin:
“They all say they want to be part of it today. What exactly is it? “I don’t know what it is”, says Georgia, who is 25, and easily the youngest person here who is not asleep in a pram. “I think it is just what we do.” It is variously described to me as being British and being proud of being British; it is tradition and continuity; it is where they will take their children when it happens again. “It”, says Graham from Dagenham, “is the end of an era.”
What is this mysterious “it” of which people vaguely speak, the force by which they have been driven here to stand in a queue which, at the time of writing, was 4.9 miles long and closed to further entrants? “It” is the call of ritual and the human need to participate in acts and customs which have defined English and British history for over 1000 years.
A deeply moving experience
Even though I have been a monarchist all my life, I have still been surprised at the depth of feeling I have experienced, watching these strange and arcane ceremonies being performed. Rituals which were once simply funny-sounding words and names from a bygone era on the page of a constitutional law textbook are now playing out in real time. One feels quite palpably the arc of British history moving one notch forward.
The formal proclamation of the new monarch at the meeting of the Accession Council. The swearing by the monarch to uphold the Church of Scotland, reminding us of the awkward but enduring nature of the union between England and Scotland. The Principal Proclamation from above the Friary Court at St. James’ Palace. These rites were last performed 30 years before I was born; 22 years before the current Prime Minister, Liz Truss was born.
This does not only cause one to reflect on the astonishing length of time that Queen Elizabeth reigned and what the world looked like the last time these words were spoken and the oaths taken. The echoes of history they carry with them go much further back. Right back before the Empire, before the discovery of the new world, before the battle of Agincourt. The Privy Council, a body of advisers to the monarch which attends the Accession Council, can trace its existence back to the Norman kings.
It’s not (only) about the empire
This is the reason why I look at the people using Queen Elizabeth’s death to focus on the subject of Empire and colonisation and feel that they are looking at this event through far too narrow a lens. Quite apart from the fact that many critics don’t seem to have understood the first thing about the monarchy’s position within Britain’s constitutional order (no, the monarch doesn’t “supervise” the government, Ms. Uju Anja), the period of empire only covers a part of the monarchy’s history. In that great sweep of time during which the monarchy has endured, the existence of the British Empire covers a mere third.
Right now, the fact that Britain was once an imperial power with colonies around the world is only part of a much bigger historical picture and, considered in isolation, does not explain the collective acts of mourning we can observe from The Queue, to the laying down of flowers, to the need for quiet contemplation. This long, almost unbroken tradition of monarchy and the accompanying customs and ceremonies draw people together into a strong sense of unity, belonging and shared identity. They form a central point around which we can gather and say “that’s us, that’s ours”.
A key part of identity
This is, of course, not particular to monarchy. Rituals are a conduit that humans use to satisfy a basic urge to feel part of something greater than themselves. In the case of the Queen’s death and mourning, that larger entity is a nation. But one can observe the same thing in religions, groups of friends, cults. The performance of rituals – whether as part of a church mass or ordering drinks at the local pub – has a binding, almost spiritual effect which strengthens and perpetuates the shared identity and membership of a group.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the demography of the group calling themselves “British” has seen enormous change. Large numbers of people from India, the Caribbean, Asia and other countries came to Britain to seek better lives and make their own contributions to their new home country. Today, they are a firm part of modern, multicultural Britain’s social fabric. King Charles III’s first, crucial challenge will be to design and adapt the coronation procedure in such a way as to draw in all of Britain’s ethnic minority groups and make them feel as though these odd, historic rituals belong to them too.
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