The Queen’s death looks different from other parts of the country. That was one of the things I learnt from an interesting post on the death of the Queen at Novara Media by Rachel Connolly, a Catholic brought up in Belfast. It’s a reflective piece, but it points out that everyone’s idea of the Queen and the Royal Family is different. Here’s a couple of extracts:

There was a boy at my school in Belfast who used to sing a Protestant song on St Patrick’s Day every year. I don’t remember all the lines, but the chorus went something like: “You can celebrate St Patrick’s Day, you can dye the river green, but when the day is over you’re still governed by the Queen.” I don’t remember this song because it was unusual or transgressive – it was just catchy… I don’t think you can blame teenagers in that context for doing things that are stupid or a bit offensive – for not knowing any better, essentially.

Tea towels and crockery

From Connolly’s perspective, the Royal Family was deeply associated with Unionism and Protestantism, in all of its forms. Her description of some of these is quite the list—from red, white, and blue kerbstones to a friend with ‘Snow Surrender’ Christmas decorations. And that’s her point. Everyone’s Royal Family is different:

The royal family means what it means to me. In England, however, it seems to be associated with the English class system (I mean this to be value-neutral; some people view this as a positive, some as a negative): Britain’s imperial past (as before); tea towels bearing the union jack and ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’; the crockery collections of older relatives; Buckingham Palace; poppies;… To an American, it might mean tea and scones and words like “guvnor” – or maybe that’s just what an American thinking about England means to me.

Nation-building

It’s a form of mythology, in other words, and mythology is a part of nation-building. But it works because it includes some people and excludes others.

On which note, for those of us old enough to remember the war in the north of Ireland, the short clip on Twitter of Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, talking to King Charles on his visit there during the week is electric.

I’m also guessing that she didn’t curtsy.

‘Carpet of continuity’

The veteran Scottish writer Neal Ascherson picked up on some of the ideas of the mythology of the Royal Family in an article in The Atlantic. We can more or less take it as a given that the only interesting writing on this comes from outside of England:

Elizabeth II’s life and reign had formed a sort of weatherproof awning, sheltering a long carpet of years. This carpet of continuity led all the way back to the Second World War, to the foundation myth of modern Britain, when “we stood alone” against fascism. Now that carpet is being rolled up.

(Photo by Anoushka Alexander-Rose from Twitter. Her copyright.)

Reflecting mirror

Of course, you can’t go far into this discussion without bumping into the Scottish theorist Tom Nairn, who wrote about the myth-making around the monarchy, when such things were unfashionable, in his book The Enchanted Glass. Ascherson alludes to Nairn’s work:

As the Scottish philosopher Tom Nairn has written, she has been an “enchanted glass,” a mirror in which her subjects see themselves reflected as united, brave, and kindly, loved and respected by the giant spread of the outside world that was once the empire and is now the Commonwealth… That enchanted glass has turned out to be a distorting mirror. But the Queen projected a calm assurance that nothing had really changed, that Britain was still the same world-leading, stable old country that had emerged after the defeat of Hitler. This soothing story has kept her people comforting themselves in that false reflection.

Symbols of the sovereign

That mirror seems to have been reassuring to the English, but less so to others, even others in the United Kingdom. Ascherson makes the subtle point that as the Queen got older, although she tried to “preserve the mysteries of the Crown”, people’s affection seems to have attached to her as a person:

Dangerous! The mirror of monarchy then loses its enchantment. If the symbols of the sovereign matter less than the mortal who wears them, Charles III will reign unprotected except by his own merits.

Of course, we can’t know yet, either way, but it is at least a possibility. It’s possible that the queues of mourners snaking alongside the Thames are there for the person and not for the institution. Or, indeed, for other reasons. Stephen Reicher, part of a team of researchers investigating the crowds this week, suggested this in The Guardian this week:

[T]here are those, whether royalist or not, for whom the royal family constitutes a canvas on to which they project the issues of their own lives – be it painful rifts or tensions or moments of joy and celebration. What happens in the lives of the royals evokes events in their own lives. The death of the Queen makes them think of the death of their own family members and others close to them. These people may grieve through the Queen, but not necessarily for the Queen.

Taking part

My wife suggested to me that the grief on the Queen’s death might also represent a kind of ‘return of the repressed’ for the grief that people felt during the pandemic, but had no outlet for under lockdown rules.

Reicher adds that some of those in The Queue might simply be finding a way to acknowledge that the Queen’s death after so long a reign was a moment of historical importance, and wanted to take part in the moment. (On The Queue, by the way, Robert Rea’s twitter thread is charming).

So if I were a royalist, or indeed a republican, I might not rush to conclusions about the institution of the British monarchy just yet. As Peter Drucker reminded us, big surprises, such as the scale of the public grief at the Queen’s death, are often a sign that our mental models of how the world works are running out of steam. Things that are unexpected always come with ambiguities.

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A shorter version of this article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.

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