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LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 19: The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II is placed on a gun carriage during the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on September 19, 2022 in London, England. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in Bruton Street, Mayfair, London on 21 April 1926. She married Prince Philip in 1947 and ascended the throne of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth on 6 February 1952 after the death of her Father, King George VI. Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 8, 2022, and is succeeded by her eldest son, King Charles III. (Photo by Emilio Morenatti – WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Rites of passage

Rites of passage

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 19: The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II is placed on a gun carriage during the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on September 19, 2022 in London, England. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in Bruton Street, Mayfair, London on 21 April 1926. She married Prince Philip in 1947 and ascended the throne of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth on 6 February 1952 after the death of her Father, King George VI. Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 8, 2022, and is succeeded by her eldest son, King Charles III. (Photo by Emilio Morenatti – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Queen’s funeral marks the end of a remarkable ten days in national life. The monarchy will evolve. But it is not among the institutions in greatest need of radical reform

In funeral rituals, wrote the founder of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, we witness “the most powerful means of reintegration of the group’s shaken solidarity and of the re-establishment of its morale.” And so it is today.

After ten days of mourning, the nation bids farewell to its longest-serving monarch, acutely sensitive to the formidable gap in public life and the collective imagination left by Queen Elizabeth II. A tremor of trepidation courses through the land, as at all such moments of collectively experienced finality. 

Yet the mystery and paradox of monarchy is that this trepidation is instantly answered: by a new King, by a new reign, by each generation of the royal family shifting up to embrace fresh responsibilities. Etched into the ceremony and obsequies that mark the passing of one Sovereign today – first at Westminster Abbey and then with the committal at St George’s Chapel, Windsor – is the insistence that the forces of continuity and resilience are greater than the vulnerabilities of the institution; and that the monarchy will endure and prosper even without its most formidable protector.

Many specific questions, great and small, remain unanswered, of course: the position of Harry and Meghan; the prospect of Scottish independence; the perennial issue of the royal finances; not to mention the intrinsic difficulty of asking a 73-year-old man to break the habits of a lifetime’s apprenticeship and activism, and to accept the strict constraints of constitutional monarchy. 

What has been evident, though, during the walkabouts of the past ten days – and, more crudely, in opinion polls – is that the new King will face this daunting task with much public goodwill and an undoubted surge of affection. He has come a very long way since his captious middle years. 

Bear in mind: when, a quarter century ago, Charles walked behind the gun carriage bearing the coffin of his former wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, it was feared that he might be physically attacked or even assassinated. Much has changed in the intervening 25 years. The week between the death of the princess and her funeral was explicitly dialectical – a bitter argument between those calling for change and for greater empathy; and those who regarded such demands as a hysterical social contagion and a New Age embarrassment. 

Yes, there have been side-shows, malfunctioning pens and other minor grievances in the past ten days. But there has been no serious divisiveness or fury, as there was in 1997. The emotions have been more dignified, less intense, unburdened by hostility or sloganeering.

Most striking of all, indeed, has been the primal quality of the mourning period: the power of ancestral forces, even in our digital age. Witness, for instance, the solemn ritual of the medieval iter – the King’s itineration through his realm; a 1,700 mile tour to signify his accession with his physical presence in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. 

Of course, there are sharply contemporary reasons why the new monarch had to declare himself immediately and unambiguously the custodian of the frayed bonds between England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. But he was also drawing upon a ritual of kingship that long predates the 1707 Act of Union; the royal perambulation that expresses the power of the tribal leader – especially a new leader – via rapid mobility.

Witness, too, the absolute centrality of heredity to the ceremony and theatre of mourning: the respective vigils in Westminster Hall by the Queen’s four children and by her eight grandchildren. The attendance at today’s funeral of nine-year-old Prince George and seven-year-old Princess Charlotte marks not only the love of two children for their great-grandmother. It signifies to the nation and the world – represented by the bowed heads of statesmen in the pews – that the Windsor bloodline is secure for at least the remainder of the 21st Century.

Perhaps above all, the Queue – ten miles long, with a 24-hour wait at its peak, it has surely earned its upper-case – has embodied the ancient and quasi-mystical relationship between nation and monarchy. 

Part-pilgrimage, part-tribute, part-celebration, it has dramatised a rediscovered instinct to gather, to resist isolation, to honour the Queen’s service and to make manifest a quiet sense of communal respect (very different to deference).

In endless television interviews, those who were waiting with babies, children, bags of food and drink, tried to explain why, precisely, they had felt compelled to come from all over the country to stand in line overnight and to brave the elements so they could walk past the coffin lying in state. Many, quite understandably, said they were doing it to honour their own dead parents or other relatives; connecting the national to the personal.

Yet you could see in their faces that this was not always the end of the matter, and that they felt drawn by something different and, by definition, harder to articulate. By and large, we have lost the ability to describe such emotions – the yearning to congregate as a people at times of deep meaning, remembrance and transition. Along with so many other traditions, we have forgotten that collective mourning (as opposed to the private variety) is an essential ritual in every society. 

The Queue was a phenomenon completely at odds with contemporary culture. It had no price point, no delivery time, no governing algorithm. Its binding principle was patience, not instant gratification, or social media “likes”, or the infantile culture of digital “influence”. It showed that, even if “levelling up” is meaningless, the spirit of levelling is not.

If I draw a lesson from the past ten days, it is that the connective tissue of monarchy is stronger than I had come to believe. To be clear: this does not mean that those now responsible for the institution can afford to be complacent; far from it. Nobody understood better than the Queen herself that the psychic bonds between nation and Crown were provisional, conditional and required permanent nurturing. The new King will need to adapt the institution as adroitly as his mother and grandfather did before him.

Yet I am more sceptical than I was that a root-and-branch overhaul is, in fact, urgently required. It surely makes sense to slim down the core team of “working royals”, and to end once and for all the indulgence of family members who treat their position as a licence to do what they want, when they want (Prince Andrew has seen to that). The new King is also correct in his instinct that the modern monarchy needs, more explicitly, to recognise and celebrate the pluralism of British society.

But I do not buy for a minute what might be called “trickle-down democratisation”: the notion that ours will somehow become a fairer, less class-ridden society if we force the Princess Royal to ride a bike round Victoria Memorial or coax Charles into wearing a lounge suit – perhaps without a tie? – when he delivers his first King’s Speech. The pomp and pageantry is not to everybody’s taste, but the awkward fact is that it is also – to reduce the matter to its bare essentials – the point. I don’t think the British really want a Scandinavian-style, IKEA monarchy at all, whatever some of them may occasionally claim to the contrary.

If this is not wholly rational in a culture in which hereditary power and influence are treated with distaste, that is because nations and people are not wholly rational. The weaponisation of emotion by digital means in the politics of the past decade has made us understandably wary of unrestrained feeling in the public realm and rightly keen to defend the role of reason in national life.

But it is equally important not to fear every manifestation of emotion or to imagine (quite pointlessly) that it can ever be driven entirely from the public sphere. Or even that it should.

In his classic book, The Sentimental Citizen, the US political psychologist George E. Marcus argues not only that “reason and emotion… [are] cooperatively entangled”, but that, constructively channelled, public emotion preserves that which is effective and disrupts that which is not: “It is a politics in which love of country can coexist with critical deliberation about the action of the nation.”

I also suspect that some of the calls for reform of the monarchy are a spectacular act of political distraction, by those who know low-hanging fruit when they see it. Of all the institutions in need of change in 2022, does the Crown really deserve to be high on the list?

Compare and contrast, say, the free market and globalisation, a system of social organisation that is in desperate need of radical renovation. If popular capitalism is to retain the collective support that so buoyed it in the Eighties and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is going to need dramatic remodelling; a whole new software.

To localise what is of course a planetary matter: I am not sure that the new UK government truly understands the forces with which it is playing so recklessly. Do Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng really think that they can float the idea of removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses at a time when food banks are running out of supplies and when the cost-of-living crisis is biting into every household, and that nobody will mind? 

Have they, indeed, been reading the news since the financial crash and absorbed the prospective social ruptures that will follow as night follows day if a tiny sliver of very rich people continue to do better and better, while an ever greater proportion of the workforce slides into the gig economy, insecurity and an intergenerational crisis where parents can no longer be sure – or even hopeful – that their children will enjoy greater prosperity than they did?

The structural problem is that unchallenged globalisation now attracts – at least among most of the world’s elites – the kind of reverence that used to attach itself to monarchy. It has its priesthood, its superstitions, its culture of awe. 

It is hedged by a technocratic divinity, and honoured in often-vacuous mantras about “growth”, “investment” and “red tape”: mantras that we shall doubtless hear in Kwarteng’s mini-Budget on Friday. Much more than modern kingship, contemporary capitalism has become saturated with content-free incantation – and is accordingly fragile as a binding social force.

Such realities will reassert themselves with pitiless abruptness tomorrow as something approaching normal political business is resumed. On Wednesday, the prime minister will address the UN General Assembly, setting out her plans for “Global Britain”; the following day, the Bank of England is expected to raise interest rates and the new health secretary, Thérèse Coffey, will unveil her blueprint for steering the NHS through what is set to be a desperately demanding winter. Once the chancellor’s big show on Friday is out of the way, the Labour Party will gather in Liverpool for its annual conference – you remember the Labour Party, don’t you?

After the mournful mysteries of today’s services in Westminster and Windsor, this resumption of political routine will doubtless seem bathetic. It will also be a longer term test of Malinowski’s argument that funerary rites “reintegrate” a society and fortify its solidarity. The sense of communality that has now reached its peak is real, and of undoubted power. Yet it is also exceptional: these are times of disaggregation, division and atomisation. What Yeats called “the artifice of eternity” struggles in such a context.

Probably, we shall be surprised by the speed with which all that is humdrum, day-to-day and prosaic reclaims a land that, for ten days, has been held still by an often bewildering sense of deep history, of rediscovered liturgy, and of ancient passions. But, subliminally or otherwise, the memories will endure.

Memory, of course, has two components: the moment itself and the future to which it is consigned in collective culture, there to play an unknowable role in times to come. Today is a day of solemn leave-taking, a thanksgiving for the life of a truly great Briton, a beloved monarch and her seven decades of service on the throne. Tomorrow, we step into a world without her; a world full of peril and possibility.


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