For people going through troubling changes, the monarchy served as a beacon of continuity and therefore reassuring stability; the same queen who, under a similarly unfashionable hat, gives the same blissful smile, swears in prime ministers, and comforts people
In the 10 days since the death of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, the number of people who took part, directly or vicariously, in the funeral hymn carefully curated by the British state has risen to several million. A quarter of a million are said to have patiently queued to see the Queen in person at Westminster Hall.
People were also mourning from afar – not just in Commonwealth nations like Canada and Australia, which still have the British monarch as head of state, but in other nations as well – thanks in part to the popularity of Netflix series about British nobility. How many other leaders around the world would be mourned by so many when they depart?
Watch: Britain bids farewell to Queen Elizabeth II with a state funeral
Before venturing into an answer, let’s try to understand why the Queen was so important to the people of the British Isles. They were not really their subjects in the sense in which the English were subjects of the Crown before Cromwell, the beheading of King Charles I, the overthrow of the Stuarts and the Declaration of the Rights granted to Queen Anne and her husband, King William of Orange , who succeeded the Stuarts in giving the people the basic rights to govern themselves through Parliament. The queen was a poster child, much like the Indian president, in the extent of state power she wielded, although she was undeniably endowed with more institutional and personal charisma.
Then why was it important? She embodied the collective identity of Britons despite their diversity – in terms of belonging to the different regions of England, Scotland, Wales and the North Island, each with their own language, tradition and culture. In it she was like the England football team whose victory in an international match would excite any Brit, even the Scots who would much rather cheer for the Scottish team. But it offered something more than a personified collective identity, something that the football team cannot offer: continuity and a sense of reassuring stability amidst turbulent change.
70 year reign
The Queen wore the crown for 70 years and presided over the British state and society when she witnessed remarkable changes along with the rest of the world. Despite the efforts of their favorite Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the dissolution of the Empire, which began at the end of World War II, proceeded apace. Toward the end of her reign, she no longer wanted even tiny Jamaica as head of state, and the demand for a republic grew steadily.
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The average British woman in the early 1960s had 2.8 children over her lifetime (the Queen was reasonably above average with four children). Today that number is 1.75, below the replacement value of 2.1. When Elizabeth became queen, the sexual revolution and the Beatles were unthinkable. Streams of immigrants from the former colonies brought color to the British population; Over the years Britain has become multicultural. From the poverty of the post-war period Britain became prosperous. New money elites, who owed their success to their own efforts rather than an accident of birth, shaped the traditional aristocracy in the image of Bertie Wooster’s Drones Club.
Great Britain joined and then left the European Union. Unions grew powerful and then collapsed under Margaret Thatcher. Britain’s manufacturing industries changed hands to foreigners, true British strength grew in finance and the knowledge economy, and its universities produced world-class thinkers and innovators. The Internet and immigrants have turned social mores and traditional hierarchies upside down – the descendants of immigrants hold high political office.
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For people living through these troubling changes, the monarchy served as a beacon of continuity and therefore reassuring stability; the same queen who, under a similarly unfashionable hat, gives the same blissful smile, swears in prime ministers, and comforts people. During the pandemic, she told them that this too would pass and families would be together again. You had to hear it. The Queen wasn’t a politician who made big promises, she just wanted people to be happy.
In his novel The Glass PalaceAmitav Ghosh describes the consequences of the British deposing of the King of Burma and his exile in India. The people of Mandalay are heartbroken, they are sobbing. And they plunder the Glass Palace, the king’s residence. They wept at the loss of the symbol of their collective identity, a truly tangible loss, as tangible as the goods that were in the palace without its royal occupants to conquer.
The British royal family embodies the collective identity of the people of England, Scotland, Wales and the North Isles. The queen symbolized this kingship for seven decades. Her death was therefore deeply disturbing. The elaborate depiction of the measured transition from the era of Queen Elizabeth II to that of a new constitutional monarch, organized by the British state according to a plan well thought out in advance, is intended to allow the monarchy to continue its role even when a particular monarch is not more.
Represent collective identity
In what other nation on earth does a leader represent a nation’s collective identity? Mahatma Gandhi did it in India, apart from a tiny minority of fanatics whose agents shot him. Nelson Mandela fitted into that role in South Africa, as did Fidel Castro in Cuba.
No constitutional monarch – many still survive their usefulness in gilded indulgences and minor scandals in Europe and Asia – has the importance that the Queen had in British life. The Thai king is now a figure of division and ridicule for younger Thais. The absolute monarchs of West Asia are more feared than loved.
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The Emperor of Japan might be second only to the late Queen of Great Britain cast in the same mold. However, there are two main differences. First, Japan remains a fairly homogeneous society that does not need extra-cultural ties of unity. Second, British soft power has wiped out anti-British sentiment in its former colonies, while Japan has botched up this regard and an active dislike persists long after Japan’s wartime atrocities in Manchuria and Korea. That means there would be a larger contingent of those who would express feelings other than sadness and indifference to hints of mortality in Japan’s imperial establishment.
The Queen is probably in a class of her own.
(TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi)
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