Illustration Courtesy of Eleanor Tomlinson Art
The period of national mourning is over, the pageantry and traditions are complete.
So it’s time to take stock of events and present a view from inside the island.
While we were coming to terms with our new Prime Minister, the one thing big enough to push that aside happened.
It was unthinkable.
But at the same time, we knew it was coming. The Queen was 50 when I was born. By the time I was old enough to comprehend who she was, she already seemed old. Familiarity and longevity meant you didn’t really notice her ageing. She went on…
There weren’t health scares. (Well, none that the Palace let on…)
And while she slowed down, she was always there at major events – right up to two days before her death when receiving Liz Truss, dutiful to the end. Nothing seemed to diminish her or get in the way of that sense of duty.
And it became easy to forget that even for royalty: time runs out eventually.
On the Thursday of her death I was keeping an eye online for the rolling coverage from Parliament. The issue of inflation busting energy bills had led the news agenda for months.
Here was the moment Liz Truss had been waiting for, to make her grand entrance and announce plans to tackle them. It was inconceivable this wouldn’t be on every front page on Friday.
The online coverage began to report that an unusual atmosphere had taken hold in Parliament with notes passed around and participants distracted from the matter at hand. Then the Speaker let everyone in on the news by announcing that the house offered well wishes to the Queen.
The message from the Palace was that doctors were concerned for her health, but she was under medical supervision and remained comfortable. At face value it doesn’t suggest imminent threat to life.
But despite its vagueness, this was as extreme as the Palace gets and the signal for the country to prepare for the worst.
The main TV channels; BBC1 and ITV, cleared their schedules for rolling coverage with presenters dressed in black suits and ties. Some thought it disrespectful with the Queen still alive, but this was all part of a longstanding meticulously calculated plan. As members of the royal family were travelling to Balmoral to be with her it emphasised the seriousness.
Come 6:30 in the evening I was in the kitchen washing dishes while my daughter was in the living room with the TV tuned to BBC2 showing athletics. She shouted; “Dad get in here, somethings happening.” The athletics abruptly gave way to a black screen which after a few seconds reassembled to take coverage from BBC1.
Huw Edwards announced that Queen Elizabeth II had died. The national anthem played, there was more silence then we returned to the newsroom where Huw and royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell talked in a very sombre manner, every word delivered slowly and deliberately to demonstrate this was of the utmost gravity.
Coverage became wall to wall on all channels. Radio was the same, every BBC station delivering the same programming. I had the unusual experience of switching on BBC’s 1Xtra which focuses on rap, grime, afrobeat and R&B to hear Winston Churchill’s voice booming out, having been the first PM of her reign.
Between her death and the funeral, normal schedules were set aside. BBC1 continued with non-stop coverage the following day. Extended news bulletins were on every channel for the whole period, even if there was nothing new to say. Some programmes were shuffled out of the schedule, lest it be seen that they weren’t showing sufficient respect.
Satirical comedy covering current affairs was definitely out.
Outside the media bubble all sport was cancelled on the day after the Queen’s death. Not wanting to be seen as being disrespectful. the entire weekend’s football schedule was canned – even though most other sports returned to action, emphasising the struggle to determine the correct way to react.
Its difficult to emphasise how all encompassing an event this was here.
Prime Ministers and Presidents are transitory. And as massive as the death of a sitting leader would be:
There’s no real comparison I can give for a US equivalent to the end of a 70 year reign as Head of State.
Then again, from what I gather news coverage across the world was just as overwhelming and reverential. The list of those who attended also signifies the global reach of the royal family. The monarch and their funeral especially is meant to be above politics but it became the subject of political machinations as to who was invited.
Usual protocol would be for every Head of State to receive an invite. But in the end, a roll call of rogue states didn’t make it onto the list:
Russia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria and Venezuela were designated pariah status, while the ambassadors of Iran, Nicaragua and, somewhat surprisingly not on the pariah list, North Korea were invited in place of their leaders – on the naughty step, but not complete outcasts.
There was further agonising over some who were invited. Strained relations with China led some to decry their invite and in the end they were represented by their Vice President rather than Xi Jingping.
The biggest furore was for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after his implication in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. He was initially expected to attend but the controversy and potential protests that his presence would generate led to the Saudi’s opting to send another representative.
As the Queen lay in state in Edinburgh and then London, huge crowds came to pay their respects.
In a mark of extreme Britishness, it seemed appropriate that the queue to view the coffin became an event in itself.
It stretched for miles, and over four days, an estimated 250,000 people waited for up to 17 hours for the privilege of entry into Westminster Hall and a few seconds in the presence of the coffin.
On the day of the funeral the country came to a stop. A public holiday like no other.
Shops, petrol stations, museums, tourist attractions, restaurants, just about everything closed. Some did open up after 4pm once a respectful enough time had passed but for the most part the country paused. BBC channels are ad free anyway, but many commercial channels joined them for the day, even those not showing the funeral. They still had ad breaks, but instead of exhortations to have a McDonalds or arrange car insurance, we had 3 minutes looking at a regal picture of the Queen while stirring music played.
Monarchy trumps capitalism.
Viewing figures for the funeral are an inexact science with a variety of numbers bandied about, some more extreme than others and appearing to owe nothing more precise than thinking of a number and doubling it.
Its been widely reported that a global audience of 4.1 billion was expected which would be truly impressive as it accounts for more than half the world’s population. This has been attributed to an analyst at the WatchTVAbroad website, with no explanation for how they arrived at it. But this was gratefully seized upon by news organisations keen to show just how important the Queen was to the whole world.
Now that the funeral has happened, some are still reporting this number as fact. And even for UK viewing figures there’s some creative accountancy going on. Depending on your news outlet of choice the funeral was watched by a peak audience of around 29 million.
This is based on figures from BARB, the organisation responsible for monitoring these things, which is less than half the population and fewer also than the number who watched the final of last years Euros football tournament between England and Italy. Whereas others are reporting a figure of 37.5 million, which would make it the most watched event in UK TV history, but without indicating the source for those extra 8 million viewers.
While it may appear that the country was united in grief, this isn’t the whole picture.
As evidenced by the fact that even if 37.5 million watched it still leaves 30 million who didn’t. In the days following her passing all media outlets, whatever their political leanings, offered blanket reverential coverage. Years of declines in newspaper sales were briefly and startlingly reversed as people bought paper copies as tangible mementos.
On my Facebook feed on the night of her death, every comment expressed sadness. Its easy to think that this and the media coverage really did reflect the whole country but there were plenty of people who didn’t turn to Facebook to say anything and weren’t represented by the coverage.
Prior to her death, support for the monarchy was strong but nothing like the unquestioning levels at the start of her reign.
There is a small republican movement actively campaigning for the abolition of the monarchy.
Polls also suggested that the younger the demographic goes, support for the monarchy wavers.
So amongst 18 to 25 year-olds, less than half support its continuation. Its expected that the blanket coverage and universal goodwill conveyed towards her will partially reverse this. But whether this is temporary. only time will tell.
There are many who express some sadness for her passing but feel that royalty has no relevance to their lives.
I’d put myself in that category.
I don’t actively advocate for removal of the monarchy. But at the same time, I don’t have any feeling of connection to them or that they represent me.
After a few days, left leaning outlets, while still reverentially reporting on events, did start offering up opinion pieces which gave an outlet to differing views. These came from a variety of perspectives:
- those impacted by the colonial history of the UK that was still in place when Elizabeth came to the throne and for which the monarchy was the ultimate signifier;
- those that see an outdated, over privileged institution;
- those for whom the wall to wall deferential coverage was too much
- and those railing against the impact of the funeral, which meant operations were cancelled at a time when the NHS already struggles with a backlog, and food banks closed for the day when poverty is a real issue.
Overeager policing was in evidence towards isolated public displays of dissent.
A woman holding up a piece of paper with ‘Not my king’ written on it was confronted by four police officers and moved on.
Others were arrested or threatened with arrest for similar expressions of defiance. Police chiefs did subsequently state that it was being made clear to officers that people have a right to protest, but also that there has to be balance between the right to freedom of expression and public safety.
There’s no denying though that the Queen was beloved by many.
The longevity brought reassurance. And while the monarchy has been through some rough patches, she kept going and kept fulfilling her duty, always there when required. With age she acquired a softness to her image alongside the dignity, reflected in references to her as the nation’s grandmother.
Now that she’s gone its just one more area of uncertainty. We’re under new management: a new PM and a new King, with their place in history assured – but their legacy to be determined.
As much as I tend to steer clear of royal coverage there are a couple of moments where even I was knocked sideways by her presence:
The opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics where royal protocol slipped and she appeared in a pre-recorded segment with Daniel Craig as James Bond.
It was such a closely guarded secret not even her family knew. She wasn’t meant to be in it either, the producers needed to know what she would be wearing at the opening ceremony so the body double in the film would match.
But she told them she would do it.
Our reaction watching the ceremony was: “Wait, what?! How?! The Queen?!” Quite something.
And then earlier this year for her Platinum Jubilee, she filmed a short piece with Paddington Bear. The look of genuine glee on her face as she pulled a marmalade sandwich from her bag was a joy.
I might not be a royalist.
But I watched it again last week and couldn’t fail to be touched by Paddington’s closing:
“Thank you, Ma’am, for everything.”
Humanity trumps all.
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