Reflections on the death of the Queen

The day after the death of the Queen, I imagine my many and complex feelings are not dissimilar to those of others. I have a profound sense of loss, though of what I am not entirely sure. There is genuine sadness, though again I am not entirely sure of its origins.

Aspects are easy to pinpoint, of course.

The loss of a sense of continuity. To be the head of state through the historic experiences of five generations is something I struggle to get my head around. From my great grandparents’ generation to that of my brother’s children, she has witnessed events and developments in every sphere of life that have shifted history’s trajectory. When the political geography of the nation has changed with profound consequence, she has offered continuity and a reference point away from the daily, grubby grind of politics.

There is the loss of the embodiment of a set of values, particularly those of public service, to which we encourage national aspiration. A life lived in the spotlight, immensely privileged yes, but with a destiny cast by an accident of history that precluded the ordinary aspirations of a young woman.

There is also a sense of shared grief. The loss of someone who, as well as being head of state, was a grandmother, mother, daughter, sister, and wife. The death of a loved one is a very individual experience for those close to them and there has been much tasteless speculation and comment on the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of some of her family. Their privacy in grief should be respected, much as we would wish that for ourselves. She has also been patron to many good causes and, for me at least, there is a sense of loss of grace and kindness in public life, qualities too often associated with weakness rather than their true harbours, strength, and resilience.

But while those sentiments help explain my feelings, they aren’t sufficient. In the end, I think we may have simply, as a nation, taken her for granted and part of what I am feeling is the uncomfortable recognition of that.

We have devoured the latest salacious tabloid gossip about ‘The Firm’, translating it into memes or using it to fuel comedically cynical observations on panel shows. We have treated the examples of human frailty and failure played out in public as something with which we are intimately familiar, commenting knowledgeably even without any knowledge at all. We have done so, labouring under the misapprehension that because she had always been there, she always would be. Now she is gone, and we wonder what is to follow and how many of our thoughts are unfinished. We wonder how an institution so seemingly anachronistic as monarchy can adapt to a world where change is constant, information readily available on demand, and people expect more say and agency over their own lives.

Whether we regard the monarchy with fondness or disdain or loathing, she has become synonymous with its constitutional architecture. She has been the obvious focus for our conversations, should we even take time to discuss the monarch and its constitutional appropriateness and relevance. However, in taking her reign for granted, and latterly out of respect for her and her monumental achievement in being our longest serving monarch, we have denied ourselves the national conversation about the role of head of state, how a constitutional monarchy must adapt in a parliamentary democracy, and what else we need to change about the governance arrangements of the United Kingdom to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

It is an issue – and a conversation – that I suspect (and certainly hope) the new King has spent a lot more time contemplating than the rest of us. And it is a conversation that must occur in a context that is very far from universally sympathetic.

Many of us have expressed revulsion, privately or publicly, at some of the extreme messages directed towards the Queen in her last hours. It is unwise, however, not to acknowledge that such sentiment shows that the questions around the monarchy in 2022 are many and the accompanying feelings deeply held. They raise challenges of history and politics that we need to consider and respond to, with rigour and honesty.

At the same time, many of us – in a further reflection of the complexity of our feelings – have felt uncomfortable with a media coverage that at times feels dystopian in the way it has covered her passing. There is no other news. There is no energy crisis. There is no absolute fear felt by millions at the onset of winter, knowing that even with energy prices capped, they won’t be able to afford the bills and inflation will mean they cannot put food on the family table. There is no scrutiny of the government’s response. There is no reporting of the monumental gains made by the Ukrainian army, whose victories might give a measure of economic confidence to counter the impact of Russian aggression.

Instead, the BBC offers wall to wall coverage of other people talking about the Queen, vox pops and reminiscences, repeating endlessly the same stories and snippets of information about what is to come, while curiously making time for the weather, even though that is the one tangible thing we can get some sense of by looking out of our windows. Elsewhere, in a manner reminiscent of the Weekly World News, the Mail Online breathlessly shows us pictures of clouds that are apparently ‘astonishing’ in their likeness to the Queen. I can only imagine their – and our – reaction if North Korean media asserted the same about Kim Jong-un upon his demise.

This approach feels uncomfortable and not of its time. Surely it is possible for the national broadcaster to be respectful and comprehensive in its coverage, while recognising that life does go on? And then I feel guilty for thinking that, as if I am somehow being disrespectful myself – on a personal level and on some undefined societal level. Perhaps it is right for occasion like this to cause us to pause and reflect on events, on life, in a way that our usual addiction to the vicissitudes of twenty-four news rarely affords?

It is a political opinion that I suspect is not shared by many of my fellow travellers in Liberalism, and may surprise or irritate them, but I am a cynical and reluctant constitutional monarchist, not a republican. My politics should lend itself easily to a respectful republicanism, but I feel deeply uncomfortable at the idea of transforming the role of head of state, even with all the privileges and unfairness and dysfunctionality of its current constitutional incarnation, into something transitory, with a fixed tenure of a few years, subject to the same political forces that delivered a Trump. In doing so it would change unalterably the nature of our politics, imbuing a single individual with a democratic mandate and setting up an executive tension inside our parliamentary democracy, aspects of which I believe are in much more urgent need of radical reform than the monarchy.  I am quite possibly wrong in that view, and I enjoy being challenged on it. Perhaps, too, my thoughts are shaped and confused by those reflections on the role of continuity and public service.

However, I am clear that our politics is far more dysfunctional than the symbolism of monarchy implies.

When the dust settles on the events of the last twenty-four hours, when the mourning is done, when the way in which the new King intends to conduct himself as head of state is clearer, we owe ourselves a frank conversation about our country, our politics, and its constitutional architecture. We owe ourselves a rigorous appraisal of the continuing failure of our politics to engage those furthest from centres of power, who need our politicians to see and understand the reality of their lives, where the consequences of their decisions are – quite literally – existential.

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