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The Queen’s Death

What a strange time it has been for a Republican since The Queen’s death.

What to make of it all for someone who believes the Monarchy has no place in a 21st century democracy and should be abolished.

A Republican or not, without question The Queen’s death was a monumental event for Britain, the nations of the Commonwealth and the many leaders and influential people across the world who knew and dealt with her.

Fundamentally, however expected, it was a huge shock to the Royal Family itself. Whatever one’s views of the Monarchy, no-one could dismiss that here was a family in emotional distress for its matriarch. We all have our own views on individual members of the Royal Family and more on what we think they think of each other, but few could doubt the love and affection each held for The Queen. The tributes from her family to Elizabeth and the way all of them behaved and carried themselves through the whole drawn-out ordeal from death at Balmoral to internment at Windsor was exemplary. We can forgive (but perhaps not forget) Charles’ ink-well tiff and leaky pen rant.

In the face of the deeply-felt UK and world-wide reaction to her death, The Queen’s huge, decades-long impact on people at home and abroad, her perceived life-long duty to her role as Head of State, her widely-acclaimed values as a kind, loving, faith-led paragon of virtue, her acutely-respected role as Britain’s leading representative on the domestic and international stage, has to be acknowledged.

As a committed Republican, it is often easy to dismiss the views and intensely held beliefs held by Monarchists. The utter logic-deficit and democratic failure of a Monarchy may be obvious to those of us who despair at how such an institution survives in the modern world, but for so many Monarchists such arguments are anathema. They fully believe in the ‘right’ (if not divine) of a Queen or a King from this Royal Family to ‘reign over us’ (hers or his subjects, not, of course, citizens). It is history, it is how things have always been done. For them the Monarch has a special quality, that marks he or she out as a ruler above us mere mortals. The Queen or King may be our Head of State in a constitutional Monarchy and therefore it is right and fitting that everyone should bow and curtsey to them to show their respect to the person who is supposed to embody the Nation and her dominions. The bowing and knee-folding is perfectly correct to acknowledge the personal and social superiority of the Monarch. This is proper deference to a person deemed to be worth more than any one of us, however distinguished, however talented or however much one has achieved in life.

The huge outpouring of emotion shown at The Queen’s death emphatically demonstrated to Republicans the sheer depth of feeling for her in Britain and around the world. It was a sharp shock for those of us who wish the Monarchy gone that the love or respect for The Queen ran incredibly deep for a massive number of people. It also clearly demonstrated that the Monarchy is here to stay for a long time yet and that with King Charles 3rd business will be now reigning over us as usual.

Since death at Balmoral, and even hours before it with the media and Parliament going into full mourning mode, any arguments against the Monarchy, criticism of

it or The Queen herself were exiled to the extreme fringes of public debate. As were any debate on the Monarch’s unchallenged status of having ‘sacrificed’ her whole life to ‘duty’ and that she had been the Nation’s ‘servant’. Newspapers, TV and radio, and public institutions and the endless stream of celebrities, flunkies and Palace ‘insiders’ who flooded the cameras and microphones, all repeated the same line that... the Queen was everything we were being told she always was, perfect in every way, a political giant, knowledgeable and wise beyond measure. Royal in all aspects but, apparently, always ‘one of us’ too.

A few hardy souls shouted defiance on the streets and were quickly silenced or arrested but even this was mainly discussed in the media as a policing issue not on the substance of The Queen or the Monarchy itself.

You had to go to a few worthy podcasts or the outpouring of #notmyking on social media to get some perspective that even though the vast majority of people certainly felt sad on The Queen’s passing this was not an ‘entire nation’ fuelled with grief as the pro-Monarchy pundits were telling us. On the day of the funeral itself, I saw an elderly chap and his wife go out for a bike ride on the stroke of 11am as The Queen’s coffin was about to be pulled to Westminster Abbey. At least two people perhaps not that interested then.

The analysis of The Queen’s reign, her impact and legacy on the Monarchy, her own personality and what she did or didn’t achieve will unfold over the many years to come. Right now, pens are scribbling and keyboards are tapping in the rush for the first post-Elizabethan age books and think of all those future documentaries and pub-arguments over who will star in the inevitable feature film.

We live in fervent hope that in all this torrent of comment, fiction and historical discovery there will be some sane, rational interpretation of The Queen’s life and legacy rather than Disneyland, sugar-coating.

That The Queen was essentially a rather nice lady who believed in God, was utterly committed to her role in the Nation’s life, took this very seriously and successfully represented a number of British virtues and values is not in question. Nor is the fact that vast numbers of people in this country and around the world loved her for it. But there are other angles to consider, almost none of them given the merest hint in all the media and public debate so far.

Without making this specifically a Monarchy v Republic question, here are some issues.

No discussion on The Queen since her death, and over the many years since her accession, failed to promote her ‘sacrifice’ at becoming Queen. The usual line… a young woman thrust into the starlight at the death of her father, giving up her entire future life to the service of her people. The play-out was repeated and repeated endlessly over the decades – Elizabeth ’gave it all up’ to reign.

Sacrifice? ‘Gave it all up’? Essentially, a sacrifice means losing out on something without anything in return. In chess, you sacrifice a knight and that’s it. You might win out in the endgame but you don’t get a knight back. In Elizabeth’s case, it is very true she had to amend her life at a young age to take on the role of Monarch, and yes this would have been a huge challenge, however she was already a Princess, in line to the Throne and steeped in Royal processes and a full analysis of The Queen’s ‘sacrifice’ needs to look at things in the round.

By becoming Queen, any loss was countered by a veritable cornucopia of wins. As Princess and already set for a life of untold wealth, privilege, deference, all was now not only multiplied but there was ultimate social and deep political power too. The world deferred to her, no-one countered what she had to say, the media and public institutions rarely if ever criticised anything she did. All the things she got to see, the people she met, the lands she visited, the praise that was heaped on her. If becoming Queen was a ‘sacrifice’, then what she gained in return has to be taken into account.

Her subjects meanwhile would be making real, hard sacrifices every day of her reign. Parents dedicating their lives to their disabled children, children giving up their futures to look after their parents, people losing out on their dreams through financial loss. Yet, by the media coverage and comments by all the flunkies, you would think Elizabeth’s ‘sacrifice’ was greater than these. The Queen sacrificed in some ways buthe level of her sacrifice was not as great as it has been made out to be in all the over-the-top eulogies about her life.

Another key aspect of Elizabeth’s home and world persona, similar to her ‘sacrifice’, was of her ‘duty’ to her people. Throughout her life as Queen, here was a Monarch dedicated to the service of her Nation and dominions - her whole reign committed to them. Both her ‘sacrifice’ and ‘duty’ have always been rammed home,

Without question, Elizabeth was indeed dutiful to her people. She visited, she shook hands, she attended events, she opened World Cups and Olympics, she launched ships, she gave Christmas speeches and garden parties, she toured her dominions, she hosted State banquets for world leaders, she met Prime Ministers every week. She also largely did all this with a smile, an authentic gentleness and grace which endeared her to so many.

Yet the issue of ‘duty’ needs unpacking. Many might argue that The Queen’s ‘duty’ as Head of State was at times to lead the Nation and others to think and work through important aspects of life affecting her peoples. Not to get involved in party politics but to speak for the moral heart of the country.

Many times, The Queen touched lightly on such things in her Christmas TV speeches but where was her ‘duty’ of leadership to comfort the hurt and deficit of human concern say over the national impact of the Grenfell fire? Or of the terrible loss to her subjects with the deaths caused by knife crime? Or the huge national wounds felt over the evil inflicted by Jimmy Savile (awkward of course because good old Jimmy was a close friend of the Royals)? Or the many issues of equal national import throughout her Reign?

To those who say The Queen should not have got involved in such things, particularly under an (unwritten) constitutional Monarchy, apparently because such issues were ‘political’, the response is why not? What is ‘political’ about speaking to the Nation as Head of State to help public understanding and nurse wounds. And if Elizabeth had to stay out of such debates, why then did she take to the airwaves to address the nation over Covid? A speech which, in my view, was the best of her reign and made a dramatic impact on the way people viewed their response and community responsibility over the pandemic. Elizabeth’s speech rightly avoided the ‘party’ issues of what the Government did or didn’t do over the crisis and she could have made similar, huge impacts to public debates over the many other issues without such political interference too.

The fact is The Queen chose, or was persuaded, not to make this part of her ‘duty’. Was she just happy to meet and greet, smash champagne bottles against ship bows and pull covers off plaques? But where in all the TV coverage since her death has there been any debate on this, either for or against? What we have had is wall to wall repetition that The Quee dedicated her life to ‘duty’ as if this was a universally accepted concept.

Few would want The Queen’s life to be rubbished, but there has been very little balance or suggestion there are other views. A Radio 4 Any Questions? show before the funeral had a full array of Monarchists on its four-person panel. No wonder then that every question about The Queen was answered with the same unanimous view of her great 'sacrifice' and incredible 'duty'.

Another aspect of the ‘unswerving duty’ was the continuing implication that hers was a 24-hour a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year nose to the grindstone commitment. In any given year, The Queen would have fulfilled many engagements from visiting hospitals to opening buildings, and from giving The Queen’s Speech in Parliament to visiting her dominions. But, in all those years there were huge swathes of time just for herself too. The weeks at Balmoral and Sandringham, the days when there were just no hospitals to visit or Royal Variety Performances to watch. Is a day at Wimbledon in the best seat in the house on Centre Court driven there by a Rolls Royce, eating a perfect lunch, attended to hand and foot really ‘nose to the grindstone’? What about all her trips to the races, as captured in a TV documentary, with all the same luxuries as Wimbledon but this time watching your favourite sport? And everyone singing a song that hopes you do all this for a long time too.

The Queen would certainly have been ‘on call’ for any national issue, or needed to approve a statement on say the death of a famous person, and there would always have been papers to sign etc. But she had an army of advisors and staff to assist or do a lot of the work. The 24-hour a day angle doesn’t wash.

The issue isn’t that a very rich person lives a life of great luxury – there are many billionaires – but I doubt if many super wealthy people are idolised in the process. In many ways the ‘sacrifice’ and ‘duty’ perspectives of The Queen’s reputation are inverted plays on the Nation’s belief-system. Here was a fabulously wealthy, incredibly privileged person with huge sway and power who somehow people came to accept was short-changed in life, had drawn the short-straw and had been forced by circumstance to spend every waking hour at that grindstone. As if people felt sorry for her. Thus, no matter what The Queen ever did, whether launching a ship, chatting to film stars after a premiere or spending weeks in pampered luxury seclusion in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, there was a constant background of public sympathy for her.

Much was said of The Queen hailing herself as the ‘servant’ of her peoples. But this was another reverse play. Yes, she devoted herself as such to her subjects (arguments above re the grindstone etc notwithstanding) and it would be churlish to doubt the Queen’s steadfast self-commitment to her role. But, being a ‘servant’ made it seem as if she were also at some beck and call which, clearly, she was nothing like. She was the one with the servants. The word is more like what some say when they sign off on a letter but many, including high-profile commentators in the media during the mourning period, zoomed in on this notion of her being somehow subservient to the public, again reaffirming this sympathy concept.

The Queen’s ‘political’ status and role has been a constant in the media’s and commentators’ lauding of her life. Famously and much repeated, The Queen dealt with fifteen UK Prime Ministers in her reign from Churchill to Truss – meeting each mostly once a week to talk about political matters (there were never any minutes so we don’t know exactly what was said). Further, during her decades on the Throne she also met, chatted and debated with an extraordinary long line of world leaders from Mandela to Kennedy, to the Shah of Iran to Reagan, and from Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses and Presidents from every continent. On her death, there were warm praise on her role from Barack Obama to, yes, even Vladimir Putin.

So much praise for the Queen’s political nous and wisdom, her years of advice to our PMs, the anecdotes of her smoothing over political ruffles at banquets, her quiet chats with world leaders in the calm of the state cabin on the Royal Yacht Britannia. So much praise indeed that even Republicans have to concede Elizabeth must have been a quiet ‘political’ force.

But nowhere in the praise or in any mainstream TV coverage or comment is there any analysis of what exactly was the Queen’s political purpose or what views she would have expressed at those banquets and quiet chats on the open seas.

Again, a reverse play on all of us. The Queen, everyone was always at pains to exclaim expressed no political views, certainly none on party political lines. She was the Head of State and constitutionally above such things. She never got involved in politics. But, how come then she was always showered with plaudits about her political sagacity and fleet of foot? You can’t be political and unpolitical at the same time.

If The Queen had no political role, what did she ever talk about to those PMs and world leaders for all those years? The weather? How her latest race horse was doing? No, of course not. The Queen was always out there cutting a ‘political’ path, commenting on Government business, unquestionably affecting it and playing an international political role.

And here lies the problem, endlessly evaded by the pundits in her lifetime and after her death. What constitutional basis was there for the Queen to have this vocal political involvement? Sure, her role as Head of State involved a dizzying array of responsibilities in political spheres from signing into law legislation and presenting the Queen’s (now the King’s) speech to Parliament. But the (unwritten) British Constitution is silent on what the parameters are for a Monarch to potentially sway a Government’s thinking on major pieces of policy or talk real-politic turkey with a JFK, a Mitterand, a Saudi King or the latest Chinese President.

It is largely unknown what The Queen’s personal political views were. It’s doubtful she was a raging Leftie but the general word is she was sympathetic to socially progressive ideas, although from her elite status in life and background perhaps of the more County/Fox ‘n Hounds kind. Whatever they were, what was her ‘political’ brief throughout her reign, a brief for a role that apparently she should have no brief for? Would she sidle up to Clinton or Bush at a Palace visit and suggest the UK might get some better trade terms with the USA? Or ask President Macron at a banquet if he could possibly stop those nasty people from crossing the Channel in those small boats?

Fun can be made here, but The Queen played an expressly ‘political’ part during her reign, not least in the development and promotion of The Commonwealth which was an organisation and ideal stamped on her heart. Yet what exactly was this part, what were its parameters? Did she stick to the briefs, what were the outcomes?

Despite the democratic deficit, The Queen exercising such ‘political’ power with no specific constitutional mandate, was probably largely a benign force (though who knows) and overall the history books may deem no harm was done and a lot of good may have been achieved. But that’s not the point. Vitally, who gave her the power to do it all and why has this hardly ever been questioned. Or questioned now after her son slipped onto the throne without so much as a by your leave.

Tony Benn’s oft quoted words resound; “Ask the powerful five questions. What power do you have? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you? And if you can’t get rid of the people who govern you then you don’t live in a democratic system.”

Much was made of The Queen being both Royal and ‘one of us’ at the same time. The reverse play idea works here too yet some anecdotes cannot be taken at face value. One lady was astonished that when meeting Elizabeth for tea her Monarch actually poured the brew. She took this as a mark of The Queen’s greatness and the TV interviewer promptly joined in the admiration. Others, mainly politicians, regaled how when staying at Balmoral The Queen would drive them herself to a remote bothy and serve the visitors sandwiches and other delights for lunch. The Monarch’s ‘common touch’.

The Queen pouring tea and sorting lunch is a cute thing, and clearly some evidence that Elizabeth was basically a nice person, with manners and grounding in how to behave. But this is hardly the stuff of the ordinary. Do we really think The Queen made all those sandwiches, bought the food, put the gas in the Landrover that took her guests up into the hills and that had she broken down a phalanx of support staff wouldn’t have been there in a shot to take care of it all. Ordinary people have to phone the AA.

Millions felt direct grief and reverence for her status as Queen, the ultimate head of the Monarchy which they endorse. But millions of others who are neutral to the Monarchy but respected and liked Elizabeth will have been more affected by her death than they would ever have imagined due tohe constant life-familiarity with her over so many years.

Why The Queen was so popular despite all the Monarchy issues and Royal Family scandals, lies in the amalgam of unique factors marking her out as singularly different. The combination of how she became Queen, how the Monarch and the Royal Family were perceived in the first decades of her reign, the fixation the media has had on her and ‘The Firm’ with the rise and death of Princess Diana and the sheer longevity of Elizabeth’s life and her unparalleled ubiquity.

Passing away at 96, Elizabeth 2nd must have been the most photographed, written about, filmed and branded person in her own lifetime than anyone else in the history of the world. From stamps to coins, from bank notes to official documents, from TV to films, from books to magazines, from newspapers to the internet, the Queen’s image and reality was central to how Britain and the world worked since she took the throne - and even before then with her role as a budding Princess, her time in the Auxiliary Forces and her young broadcasts.

For decades, wherever people looked, whatever they were doing, or reading, or watching or feeling, Elizabeth was there. At Christmas, on Remembrance Day, at Ascot, at State occasions, at Royal weddings and jubilees and, of course, at the numerous visits she made at home or overseas. Young or old, male or female, Brexiteer or Remainer or whatever combination of opposites you like, The Queen was the constant face in your face most likely for all your life. Monarchist or Republican, such exposure to one person, a being whom so much of Society idolized, revered and deferred to will have made a profound impact on you just by being alive.

Elizabeth became almost a co-opted member of everyone’s family – in earlier years, the good-looking new Queen, later the favourite auntie and latterly the nation’s smiling granny. At her death, we felt somehow as if a relative had died, even Republicans. Many might have felt they had had more ‘contact’ and emotional connection with The Queen through the media and her image than with their parents or siblings, such was her ever-felt presence in their lives.

Undeniably, huge numbers who support the Monarchy and deeply mourned The Queen’s death wished to display this physically by lining the Mall and joining 'The Queue' for her lying in State. But, it is also reasonable to say that those numbers were swelled to a significant degree by many others either simply wanting to say farewell to a person they ‘knew’ or just wishing to be part of a major event. The media coverage, however, wished to make you believe that all those lining the streets from Balmoral to Aberdeen, from Buckingham Palace to Windsor, were Monarchists in deep grief.

Elizabeth’s journey as Queen, from the death of her father to her own death, was unique and many factors conspired to develop and enhance her impact as Monarch placing her almost beyond criticism whether criticism was deserved or not.

First, the Throne came to her following tragedy, George V1’s passing away so suddenly. Romantically, Elizabeth was on safari in Kenya as part of a State trip and her dramatic dash back home, now as Queen, began her reign with huge public sympathy – the origins of the ‘sacrifice’ question. Here was also a public steeped in recent war-time experience and a special bond with her father for his role as the war King, himself someone who had had the Throne thrust on him due to his errant brother Edward’s abdication. The new Queen, already idolised, inherited all her father’s war-time caché. It was a great thing to say, and reflected the time perfectly, but perhaps it was no coincidence that The Queen’s pay-off line in her Covid TV address was ‘We will meet again”, the epitome of war-time phrases.

Then the sumptuous coronation, the first ever live on television. A huge national and world-wide audience clamouring for Royalty and vast numbers buying their first ever TV sets just for the occasion. Already, here was a young Queen, loved and pitied, respected for her mantle of continuing a form of war-time spirit just as the WW2 success began to embed its reality into the nation’s psyche, aided by films, books, TV shows, reunions, Remembrance Days and military celebrations – a process that has continued right up to the present day. Britain still has a deep emotional fascination and regard for its war-time record. For many, it remains core to our national DNA.

Elizabeth’s reputation and place in the British way of life never lost this vital connection and each element of military action from the Falklands to Iraq, and any aspect of life in competition to the rest of the world or more tellingly with Europe, from World Cups to the EU, only deepened it.

The issue isn’t that Britain should not have boasted its greatness either at sport of anything else – our gold medals were well-earned by world-beaters – or that we could not be proud of our military. It was because The Queen was personally associated with all the gold and the glory and the winners. All those honours system gongs for a Wimbledon, F1 or golf champion, all the knighthoods and damehoods for our national treasure actors. Elizabeth’s reputation fed off the lot.

It is telling that a Monarch which so many revered for her ‘duty’ to others and her being a ‘servant’ often focussed attention on herself. Outside of her Covid TV talk, what can we remember her saying the most? Probably her ‘annus horribilis’ speech which raged about what a terrible time she was having, mainly due to Windsor Castle having a fire and her children’s marriages breaking down. Meanwhile, out there in the horrible world lots of horrible things were happening to her people including many who had lost a home to fire and were facing family divorces. Where was a speech from The Queen, our Head of State, when 73 of her subjects were killed in the devastating Grenfell fire? A true horribilis which it continues to be for all those bereaved and made homeless. Even the celebrated tea party with Paddington Bear, the marmalade sandwiches, was all about saying ‘thank you’ to The Queen for everything.

With such public and media deference from her Coronation in 1953 to the beginning of the 1980’s – almost a quarter of a century of peace and better times for her people in the UK and relative harmony in the Commonwealth – Elizabeth’s golden reputation bloomed. Nothing special needed to be worked at. The openings and the handshakes, the State Occasions and the Christmas Day speeches were all that was required to build the positive Queen brand.

Then Diana hit the headlines and the Royal Family, who were until then gradually becoming more of a celebrity attraction, suddenly faced media exposure in the extreme. The Diana effect rocketed anything Royal into the stratosphere and The Queen was on the ride whether she wanted it or not. And when, eventually, the Charles and Di marriage began to falter, the Royal-celebrity media switch was turned up even higher. Then on Di's death, the media had to get a bigger switch to cope with the volume of coverage they could churn out in the wake of such UK and world-wde demand.

Diana’s death was the first, and one of the very few times, when The Queen attracted criticism of serious note. Diana had become Royal Family enemy number 1 for many reasons. She was a bigger celebrity than even The Queen, she didn’t play the Royal Family game of keeping quiet about life in The Firm and sent the Royals apoplectic with her famous three-in-this-marriage Panorama TV interview.

The Queen was obviously not a Diana fan. But much of the rest of the world was. So, Elizabeth’s assumed lack of emotional response to the tragedy in Paris and staying away from public exposure at Balmoral while the nation wept for the loss of the ‘People’s Princess’ was attacked even by a loyal media. The Daily Mail went so far as to headline ‘Where is our Queen?’.

Yet, forced to return to London and make what many believe was a crocodile-tear live TV tribute to her errant former daughter in law, and parade among the tons of flower tributes outside her own house, The Queen’s crimes were quickly glossed over (although, to be fair, never quite forgotten), Within a short while, now restored to being the top Royal celeb, the onward march of her popularity resumed apace into the new century - and it never stopped.

The rise of Camilla from Royal mistress to Duchess (and now to Queen), the non-stop cascade of coverage of William and Harry’s lives, their weddings and turmoils, the ceaseless Meghan dramas, the jubilees, and, ultimately, the sick fiasco of The Duke of York, Epstein and Maxwell's friend. On and on and on, The Queen reigning with unadorned, untarnished wonderfulness.

Camilla’s ifs and buts, William and Harry’s dirty washing, Meghan’s cries of racism, her husband’s dodgy driving and public gaffes and even the multi-million pound bailing out of her second son, hardly left a mark on the Monarch. Whatever the Royal Family were up to, whatever the problem or scandal, whatever the potential court-case, The Queen reigned on blameless, unblemished, untarnished until finally receiving in death the wall-to-wall deification from the moment Huw Edwards appeared on BBC TV with a black tie, even before Elizabeth’s death was official announced.

What this life of uniqueness means is that there were numerous reasons why the public at home and around the world reacted and felt the way they did on The Queen’s death. But it is a level of uniqueness which can never be repeated.

Charles, for all those who laud him now as King and wish him well, has precious little of any of the unique assets that his mother had coming into the job. His role as King will, and rightly so, be carried out under an entirely different spotlight than The Queen faced. Yet, even so, the same machines that drove Elizabeth’s blameless promotion are already at work for the new King. All that praise during the mourning period, the pomp and ceremony of his accession and the full regal bash of his coronation (plus, of course, the crowning of his wife, who, in one of her final acts as Monarch, The Queen ensured we have to have whether anyone likes it or not).

The Queen’s death was a mega event, and vast numbers of her subjects as Monarchists were and remain understandably devasted. But there are many too who, while fully respecting the death of a unique figure in their lives, have, like me, justifiable issues with The Queen's role and track-record, much of it completely at odds with the media whitewash and official propaganda in the wake of her passing.

Will there be a more rounded appreciation of Elizabeth in the future? Perhaps we should recall here the words of her grandson William, now the next in line to the throne - a quote from a speech he gave at Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, her last hurrah. He was talking about the young people of today – and I suspect they will be a great deal more challenging about Kings and Queens in the future.

‘…They won’t accept the status quo, they won’t accept that change is too difficult to deliver. Never before have we had so much power to change the big things.’

We live in hope.

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