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A royal taboo

A royal taboo

Confronting death is never easy, much less when it concerns the head of state. But we need to talk about the death of the Queen, not least so we can discuss what comes next


In the absence of any eye-catching or meaningful policies in the Queen’s Speech this week, there was one moment that caught everyone’s eye, one image that was freighted with meaning: Prince Charles, who stood in for his mother in delivering the Queen’s Speech, glancing across at the crown.

No one’s good at talking about death. Not in normal families, not in other people’s families, even less about the royal family. In Britain, it feels treacherous – the affection and the admiration for Queen Elizabeth II is such that this is a subject we go to great lengths to avoid talking about at all, and, if we do, it’s all euphemisms and awkwardness. 

But the Queen – either deliberately or inevitably – has begun to invite us to end this taboo. 

The time is approaching; the Queen is not well; the accession of King Charles is getting closer; and the Queen – whether it’s in the symbolism of her crown on a red velvet pillow or absences at Easter, the announcement earlier this year of Camilla’s future title as Queen Consort, the careful revelation of her “mobility problems” and new housing arrangements at Balmoral – well the Queen, in every way, is preparing us. 

I’m James Harding, the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to talk about what takes the place of that taboo. Will it be a fascination with pomp and ceremony, analysis of personal grief and the national psyche and then a slump into a “best-days-are-behind-us” nostalgia? Or, I’d like to think, might it be an optimistic reckoning with change and the future?

The ten days between the Queen’s death and the funeral have been meticulously planned. The best, perhaps tellingly, the only piece written on London Bridge – the codename used by hundreds of people involved in the planning across government and public bodies – well the best piece was written by Sam Knight for the Guardian in 2017. 

The whole undertaking is, as you’d expect, based on precedent. It’s historical. The language, the protocol, the processions – they all draw a line from Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, through King George V in 1936, King George VI in 1952 and Sir Winston Churchill’s state funeral in 1965. In the costumes and carriages, in the music, the theatre of majesty and the magic of obscure ritual, its inspiration is Victorian.

It will, I know, be irresistibly moving. (I confess I cried watching when I watched one of the BBC’s obituary films when we were doing “London Bridge” rehearsals when I was at the BBC.) And it will also feel, unavoidably, retrospective: a final farewell to Britannia – the last link to Empire, Victoriana, to greatness, leaving a sense of how much Britain has done and lost. As Sam Knight wrote in that 2017 piece: “It will be 10 days of sorrow and spectacle in which, rather like the dazzling mirror of the monarchy itself, we will revel in who we were and avoid the question of what we have become.”

Well, there’s a question that’s avoided even more: what next? Like a couple who’ve thought about the wedding, but not much about the marriage, the meticulous planning for the ten days after the Queen dies dwarfs the thinking on the ten years that follow. The team engaged on planning the next decade of the monarchy, its place in Britain and the world, is much, much smaller, and even more secretive.

But, surely, there’s a healthy, even helpful conversation to be had here. It was the conversation that we began at a ThinkIn in 2019 – the Four Houses of Windsor – and we continued last week at our ThinkIn titled, simply, William or Harry? You can catch up on both on the Tortoise website. 

Because here are some aspects to the monarchy that King Charles will have the power to remake. 

For a start, the relationship with the press. Plainly, it’s not working: it’s come to amplify and aggravate differences in the family and, largely, obscure their contributions. You might say that this was bound to happen in a period of change, as the Queen and Buckingham Palace hand over responsibilities, different families within the royal family itself push for their own priorities and it’s all made bigger, louder and busier by social media. But there’s surely more change to come. Is the monarchy or, for that matter, the country best served by what Prince Harry described as the “invisible contract” with the tabloids, or the old gentlemen’s agreement across Fleet Street – in other words, do the efforts by the royal family to manage their image and public support through the press really work? 

There’s a question too of purpose. You may disagree with Prince Charles’ choice of causes or his conduct as fundraiser and cheerleader for them. For example, he’s been an activist on climate, which I like, and architecture, which I don’t. But what now? Do we want a monarch who self-censors and shrinks back to lobbying for pet projects and personal passions behind closed doors. Or is the King going to use the power of that royal microphone to publicise social causes and international cases, or will he, do we think, stick to the old formula of public service and patronage of institutions? A lot about Britain hangs on the answer.

And, of course, there’s the question of the future of the monarchy itself: the personal popularity of the Queen has, for decades now, masked the true public support for the institution of the monarchy. Republicans are going to find it much easier to make the arguments against the hereditary principle when the most popular person in Britain and the most famous woman in the world is no longer on the throne. So, what then? What then will be the arguments for the monarchy?

And these, I should say, are the easy arguments. There are questions for which King Charles will not have the answers, but they will be made more difficult by the absence of Queen Elizabeth.  

In particular, three looming crises in institutional arrangements in which the monarch plays a central, albeit constrained, role: the Union; the Commonwealth; and the Church. 

Post-Brexit Britain is genuinely toying with break-up. Sinn Fein’s electoral victory this month means the UK is engaged in not one, but two live conversations about future referendums: one for Northern Ireland; one in Scotland. Boris Johnson’s Government is not minded to grant either poll, so there is no break-up imminent. But in Belfast and Edinburgh now, the stated policy of the most popular party in government is, in both cases, for referendums to leave the United Kingdom.

As William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, discovered on their trip to Jamaica, the countries of the Commonwealth are actively reconsidering their relationship with the UK and the Crown too. Behind the scenes, Charles’ role as the head of the Commonwealth has required some negotiation. So how does the UK shift from clinging on to the Commonwealth and all the Imperial baggage that that implies to a forward-looking relationship with the English-speaking world?

And, a related issue, the Anglican communion: one of the great strengths of the Church of England has been its congregations around the world, but, for decades now, the moral conservatism of the international church is at odds with the progressive values of the Church in England itself – viz the church’s position on Roe v. Wade, gay marriage, women bishops; and meanwhile, the UK is becoming a less Christian, more multi-faith country, more of an argument for King Charles as a defender of not just faiths, plural, but beliefs. 

Perhaps, the press misread that sideways glance in Parliament this week. Perhaps Charles wasn’t looking at the crown eagerly, but warily. Given the issues that await, you’d hardly blame him. But he doesn’t have a choice. And, of course, nor do we. All we can do is choose to have a conversation about the future of the country and the constitution that he will reign over – or we can choose to hide behind the taboo.