Voices: After the Queen died, Britain reached peak Fawlty Towers

·5-min read

When the death of Queen Elizabeth II was announced at 6:30pm on 8 September, I had a sinking feeling. I knew that, as someone who believes that the UK would be better off without a constitutional monarchy, I’d be biting my tongue for at least 10 days to come. What I didn’t foresee was the scale of performative grief and the concerning suppression of republican views that would follow.

We can all feel empathy for the royal family and for people who knew the Queen – they have lost someone they loved. For many, the Queen was a symbol of safety, of comfort and continuity. She was an unchanging presence throughout the lives of the majority of the British public. But she was not known to me, I did not mourn her passing on a personal level, and I resent the unsubtle implication that I should do so.

I felt rather like an alien being that had managed to crash land on a hostile planet. The inhabitants of Normal Island were behaving very oddly. They were queuing for up to 25 hours to see the proudly displayed coffin of someone they’d never met, like tickets for the latest Harry Styles concert. One woman said that going to the lying-in-state was better than the birth of both her children. This is the stuff of satire, surely?

One thing I like about Britain is our cynicism, our sarcasm and – more often than not – our irreverence. Yet, from the period of 8 to 19 September, we appeared to go through a bit of a personality crisis, embracing “national mourning” with barely a hint of critical thinking.

If you weren’t OK with cancer scans being cancelled and food banks shut for the sudden bank holiday; if you had some reservations about the price tag of it all in the middle of a cost of living crisis – or if you didn’t show the appropriate level of grief-stricken deference – well, you’d better lock yourself in a Center Parcs chalet and stay there. Sorry, but where is our sense of Very British irony?

I heard one BBC interviewee say: “My life has been marked by all these wonderful jubilees.” Has it? Yet, if I trawl through my 31 years of life, the Queen’s jubilees factor precisely nowhere. They marked nothing for me. The Iraq War, university fees tripling, the housing crisis, austerity – now those were events that diced up my life. I find the disparity between so many of us in the wake of the monarch’s death startling.

Across many media outlets, on social media and on a personal level, conversations about the monarchy have felt increasingly sterilised. It reminded me of the Fawlty Towers episode where Basil has German guests and keeps hissing: “Don’t mention the war.” Don’t mention the empire. Don’t mention colonialism. Don’t mention the monarchy as a symbol of the inequality that is riven deep in British society. And don’t, whatever you do, mention why Prince Andrew might not be exactly beloved of the nation.

Those who did mention one or more of the above received significant backlash, particularly Black and Asian people, who were subjected to a vile outpouring of racist abuse online. When the news of the Queen’s death broke, journalist Owen Jones actually warned his followers about posting: “anything other than the very obviously mundane that doesn’t get misconstrued and dissected to oblivion”.

As the week and a half of mourning and connected events rolled on, dissenting voices, where they appeared in public spaces, were roundly quashed. Protesters were faced with heavy-handed policing – a woman who held up an “abolish monarchy” sign at a proclamation ceremony for King Charles III in Edinburgh and a man who heckled Prince Andrew were both arrested and charged, and a barrister was questioned by an officer after holding up a “blank piece of paper” in Parliament Square, among other incidents.

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In the Guardian, Moya Lothian-McLean describes attending a demonstration for Chris Kaba, an unarmed Black father-to-be who was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police. She writes: “As we stood there, listening to the heartache of Kaba’s bereaved family and friends, along with relatives of some of the 1,833 people who have died after contact with the police in England and Wales in the past 32 years, a woman stalked past and shouted ‘someone’s mother has died’.”

There’s something sinister about how perfectly this anecdote encapsulates an ugly truth about Britain – a place where some lives are just worth more than others.

Some will argue that the passing of a public figure should be a time of solemnity, of quiet respect and reflection. However, it is precisely on reflection that we cannot ignore pressing issues of class and inequality, of archaic privilege and of how absolutely weird and wrong it feels to pass on hereditary power and titles in Britain in 2022.

I’m glad things are returning to normal, but if that “normal” doesn’t include serious conversations about the role of one pretty problematic family, the laws and taxes they get to avoid, and who pays for it all – then we’ve missed an opportunity, and we’ll be worse off, as a nation, for it.