Death, Honour & The Monarch
“She incarnated (the monarchy's) psychologically central role as the supreme nanny-figure in a doting nanny state, peopled by overgrown school children still reluctant to leave the nursery.”
Good taste is said to dictate that we not find fault with the newly deceased. But if little that was not commendable about Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the mother of our head of state, was to be heard following her recent death, the institution that she represented was another matter.
At first sight the death and burial of the Windsor matriarch seems to have left Britain's monarchists, both the religiously monarchist and the pragmatists, reassured. An NOP poll suggesting a fall to 12 percent in those favouring abolition and perhaps 1 million people turning out to watch the funeral procession helped. Ten million were reported to have watched the funeral on TV.
It is certain indeed that there is no cause for republicans to be jubilant in this Jubilee year. Nonetheless we do have reason for a taking a particular satisfaction from recent events.
Sneering, Spiteful and Sterile
The apparent need of some supporters of monarchy to misrepresent republican opinion hints at why this is so.
We were accused of sneering, of being spiteful and of having sterile ideas. Republicans were not democrats but evil plotters. In the Independent Anne McElvoy wrote of “real liberals (such as herself one assumes), as opposed to those (republicans) whose real motivation is the pursuit of their prejudices.” It was asserted that we saw a republic as a panacea for class division. Monarchists accused us of being happy to see attention distracted from more serious problems.
One liberal defender of the feudal institution even implied those wishing to free the country of monarchy would remove our best defence against the coup d’etat that he feared in the event of Parliament enacting radical laws.
Monarchists also inflated republican hopes in order to more easily knock them down. Republicans, some claimed, were saying that the public reaction to the death showed that abolition of monarchy was imminent. Well the one million who lined the streets to see the funeral procession showed that that was not so, they exclaimed in retort. The truth was that no sensible republican had made any such claim.
The criticism of republicans revealed, however, that we could no longer be dismissed with contempt. We were written of, instead of written off, as voices to be heard in a legitimate debate. Monarchy was no longer as fixed in Britain's social geometry as the Rock of Gibraltar in European topography. Republicans were no longer Irish terrorists. We were people who had to be taken into account. In fact, we were taken into account to an extent that had never happened before.
BBC Makes News
It stated with the BBC. Because the corporation took some account of the wishes of those who do not worship the Windsors, its coverage of the death itself became news. At times this seemed to evoke more emotion than the death.
Republicans had long foretold that the BBC would give disproportionate time to the story for which it had rehearsed regularly for many years. But when the death happened wall-to-wall coverage did not materialise, although a case can be made without much difficulty that in total the Corporation tilted in the latter part of the mourning towards the monarchists. In all BBC TV broadcast less than 5 hours of news and tributes on its main channels on the Saturday of the death.
The public reaction was not what the monarchists would have hoped for. An accident and emergency department hospital drama was moved from BBC1 to BBC2 to make way for a tribute to the deceased on the more popular channel. But 4.9 million views changed channel to watch the British ER. Only 4.6 million preferred the tribute.
Many hundreds of viewers called complaining that they could not watch their favourite programmes. Far fewer complained that there was not enough about the queen's mother.
The conservative press did protest, about inadequate coverage and about inappropriate newsreader attire. The BBC had failed to speak for the nation, it complained. The writer A. N. Wilson claimed in the most monarchist of newspapers, the Sunday Telegraph, that the BBC had given republicans a disproportionate voice. Complaints from those sources was to be expected however. The people's viewing choices told a different story.
So did the press and television. Former Tory MP Michael Brown used his column in the Independent to call for reform of the royal prerogative used by the executive to bypass Parliament. The piece was headed “We'll never be a democracy while we're in thrall to royalty.” Brown described the oath of allegiance to the Windsors that legislators are required to take as a “pantomime” and a “constitutional idiocy.” He also criticised the ban that stops MPs debating the monarchy. This was surely an extraordinary way for a Conservative to mark the death of the leading Windsor.
Channel 4 News, a rival to the BBC, chose to go to Bury St Edmunds, a rural area away from the cynical metropolis, to interview locals. It found more indifference than enthusiasm for the monarchy. In the Sun, a newspaper with strong appeal to conservative working class readers, a commentator drew an unfavourable comparison between the queen's mother who had visited the East End of London after German air raids and his own grandmother who lived there and endured the raids.
Well, she wasn't my favourite granny. I had two favourite grannies. And one of them lived in the East End during the war. She didn't just visit it after the bombing had stopped.
Richard Littlejohn, The Sun
The BBC did pump up its coverage after the initial downplaying caused criticisms. One newspaper commented that it had trouble balancing republican and monarchist sentiments. But when in the past has the BBC even tried to take account of republican views on such an occasion? This time it seemed to believe that republicans could not longer be ignored. That was new.
Not VE Day
It was remarkable that at a time when the nation was supposed to mourn so much attention was paid, in the news media and in conversation, to how much mourning there really was, to what this death meant for the monarchy and to whether a republic was called for.
Some of the monarchy's supporters resisted republican hopes with the assertion that the public mourning confirmed the unifying influence of monarchy. That was a rather strange at a time when doubts about the institution were more visible than ever before.
If it was clear for the first time that a republic is a serious option, it was less clear how much support there might be for it. The NOP poll showed less support than in the past. It was likely, however, that that was in part because of a reluctance by those questioned to say something that might seem callous.
The huge crowds for the lying-in-state and funeral reassured monarchists. Many were there, however, because they wanted to witness what they believed to be an event of historical significance or to enjoy the spectacle. For at least one, who spoke to the Independent, it pointed up one of the consequences for a nation that honours birth above achievement. “The transport system's gone to pot,” he said, “the NHS is a disaster but, by God, we can throw a great funeral.”
When institutions called for mourning it must have been difficult for individuals to draw attention to themselves by dissent. Who will speak when the workplace management calls for two minutes of silence? Who will refuse to wear a black arm band if the football club asks its players to put one on?
In the Observer Anthony Holden wrote that until recent times a “virtual re-enactment of VE day” had been planned for the funeral. Nobody seemed to think that that would work now. The spare crowds at Windsor and Clarence House before the funeral suggested that where there was not spectacle to entrance there was little sign of devotion.
The death and burying of the Windsor matriarch worked to subdue criticism of the individual. But they also drew attention to some of the evils and absurdities that help republicans make the case for a better way of governing our nation.
Some would think it dishonourable to put on a military uniform to which military service did not entitle them. Not the heir to head of state. At the funeral of his grandmother Charlie Windsor dressed up in the uniform of a rear-admiral although he has never achieved that degree of elevation in naval service.
His grandmother's coffin was carried by Irish Guards, soldiers of a regiment the name of which speaks of a national fissure (the regiment was formed in 1900 when the whole of Ireland belonged to the UK). Although military officers attending the funeral were named, the privates who bore the coffin were anonymous, for they were of the “other ranks,” the commoners of military service.
The funeral as a whole was emblematic of monarchy. The grandest of national honours, a lying-in-state and a state funeral, were granted to someone who had not earned the honours she was granted. She had married into them, no better than inheriting them. The highest tribute that her admirers could pay was to say that she had done her duty. Only a “royal” is honoured for merely doing their duty.
The BBC moderated its coverage of the death in part because it believed that wall-to-wall coverage might seem disproportionate after the 11 September attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Ordinary Americans lived and died with great courage on that day. They were honoured for what they had done.
The funeral reaffirmed that In Britain we still grant the highest honour to birth, title and social status. None of the nonsense written and said about how the deceased had earned this honour justified her elevation in national esteem above so many of higher merit.
Republicans honour those who have earned that privilege by their courage, their intelligence or their achievement. Those of us who wish to see this spirit of democracy reign supreme in our country, supplanting inherited right and social stratification, take no pleasure from this death but are entitled to find satisfaction in what it has revealed.
The Windsor family matriarch has been credited with saving the family. The Observer called her “the principal guarantee of the nation's affections” for the family. Now that she has gone reformers among the monarchists will urge reform more strongly. The Windsors are likely to see the wisdom of co-operation.
Reform may make it harder for republicans to make the case for a nation that celebrates the people, not lords and ladies. It may also increase the opportunities for doing so. The events of the last few weeks have shown that we are closer then ever to our objective. There is work to be done.
The funeral was attended by the prime ministers of the three nations outside of Britain that recognise queen Windsor as their head of state.
When Helen Clark of New Zealand, John Howard of Australia and Jean Chretien of Canada arrived in Britain they were told that a bus would take them to Westminster Abbey for the funeral. They protested this indignity and were allowed to travel by car.
The three prime ministers who's nations recognise the British head of state as their own were seated for her mother's funeral where they could not fully see the proceedings, and had to wait two hours for the ceremony to begin.
The last to arrive, the mourners with highest status, were the kings, queens and princes of Europe such as so-called prince Ernst-August of Hanover.
When it was over the democrats, the prime ministers of sovereign states, were told to stand until the royal bums had left the area. Protocol demanded it, they were told.
Acknowledgements to the Australian New Statesman