I remember holding a pub quiz for the Italian Society at Leeds Uni, circa 1999, and my new Italian ERASMUS friends joyfully declaring their team name as ‘Queue Lovers’ in deference to this bizarre aspect of British culture. I didn’t really get it, back then – but now I do. Now everyone does. Britain has shouted from the rooftops of the world (in hushed, respectful voices, of course) that its people are the great masters in the divine art of queueing, the never-to-be-beaten victors of a competition no other country would ever be patient/mad (delete as preferred) enough to enter. We lost the greatest, longest-reigning Queen of all time and swiftly filled the void with the greatest, longest-reigning queue of all time.
This led me to ponder on the whole Royalist/Republican debate, where I find myself in my accustomed spot, i.e. on the fence – or more accurately, leaping from one side of the fence to the other. Seeing both sides of the argument, all the grey areas, when life in black and white would surely be so much more straightforward. Listening with sympathy – and awe – as an elderly woman on the train tells me she’s going up to London to “see the Queen”, however long it takes, despite being half-crippled by arthritis. “I had to come”, she says, “I couldn’t stay at home watching it on the telly one minute more.” Nodding along later that very day as my socialist buddies in Brighton shut down any talk of the monarchy in two or three cool sharp words.
Is the UK truly a democracy?
I think it’s a bit of a head versus heart thing. My head says there is no place in a modern democracy, or indeed anywhere in the modern world, for a tiny group of unelected people – a mere family – to reside in gilded palaces, to automatically assume deference and respect from all they meet, to live in luxury’s own lap, while thousands are homeless and millions are living in desperate poverty, facing perhaps their worst winter yet. It makes no sense; it beggars belief, really, that we not only allow it, but actively support such a system. My sense of logic, my sense of fairness, are offended by the very idea.
And yet. Like many others who would not dream of defining themselves Royalist, I had somehow come to rely on the Queen as someone who was unshakably, quietly, with the utmost integrity and solidity, always there. Timeless and age-defying: still riding her horse at ninety-five. Some part of me (definitely more heart than head) childishly assumed she would never die and felt cheated and bewildered when she did. The benefit of someone always being there is huge, and the reason she was able to always be there (until, so suddenly, she wasn’t) is precisely because she wasn’t elected, because it’s a monarchy and therefore not fully (how could it be?) a democracy.
Our current political leaders are hardly good poster children for democracy. Four Prime Ministers in six years, each leading the country into more chaos and division than the last; none of them elected by me or representing my views in any way. Democracy for me has meant growing up under Thatcher’s enormous shadow, living in Italy through the Berlusconi years and returning to the UK just in time to see the Lib Dems get into bed with the Tories. Democracy has meant watching in dismay as Britain tore itself away from Europe and then, like a dog chewing on its own tail, continued to tear itself apart. But where does this dangerous line of reasoning lead: what are dictators, after all, if not unelected leaders?
There are, however, some glaring differences between a monarchy and a dictatorship. The most obvious is that the monarch inherits their right to lead; the dictator takes it by force. It could be argued, though, that kings and queens (mostly kings) past have frequently taken the throne by force – British history is thick with power-grabbing wannabe monarchs and contests of the kind that inspired the hit series Game of Thrones. Is it really much worthier to inherit power that has been grabbed for you by your ancestors, than it is to grab it for yourself?
Is the power of the monarch merely symbolic?
This leads us to the thorny question of how much power is even up for grabs. Times have changed since being monarch gave you licence to roll the heads of any individual for backing the wrong version of Christianity, getting in the way of your plans, or simply because they looked at you in a funny way last time you saw them in court. Henry VIII broke away from Rome – unthinkable until then – and set up a new Church with himself at the head, all because he had a raging lust for Anne Boleyn who refused to settle for being his lover.
Today’s monarchy is just a ‘symbol’, with very little actual power, people will say, as often in its defence as otherwise. It’s a funny sort of defence, when you think about it; what or who else would you defend based on their inefficacy? But again, this is an oversimplification. The monarch may no longer have the power to make laws, but that doesn’t mean they have no sway. In weekly meetings with the PM, the monarch is able to ‘advise and warn’. Based on my own rigorous research (all four Seasons of The Crown), Queen Elizabeth II with her gentle guidance was able to curb the worst excesses of fifteen governments; this is influence indeed. King Charles III will no doubt continue where his mother left off.
What then of the symbolic value of our monarchy, is this to be so easily written off? Symbols are important: wars are waged, lives are lost over symbols. The British monarchy symbolises history, tradition, imperial gain, and – however you might spin it – the fundamental idea that some select few are born to be set way above the rest.
So was the awe inspiring phenomenon of the queue an outpouring of royalist sentiment, or was it just a need to feel a sense of kinship, connection and community? Maybe it’s the latter. Perhaps, because we’re a deeply divided nation, we need really big things to heal the tribalism that followed the Brexit vote – nothing short of a global pandemic or the death of a beloved monarch. The heart-warming experiences that the queuers report – sharing meals with strangers, exchanging personal stories quickly, becoming friends in a short space of time – are all things I’ve experienced numerous times, in Asia, the Middle-East, the Mediterranean, but rarely in England.
Anybody who has taken a long-distance bus across Turkey or got a boat down the Mekong, or indeed travelled pretty much anywhere with an open mind/heart, has surely enjoyed such experiences. That’s not to say abroad is better – there are many uniquely wonderful things about life in the UK – but what, ultimately, could be more important than a sense of connection? What price are we paying for our stiff upper lip?