The last week and a bit of British history has been no more or less strange than it was always likely to be. The death of Queen Elizabeth II and today’s funeral in London had long been expected and the ceremonial aftermath meticulously choreographed. The plan code-named Operation London Bridge has been impressively implemented.
There has nevertheless been a noticeable sense of uncertainty about how to react. There has been genuine grief, certainly: polls consistently demonstrate that most British people are monarchists to some degree and there was widespread affection for Elizabeth II personally. And there has been a more general sense of discombobulation, not least in the surprisingly difficult adjustment to referring to a king – I’ve tripped over that on air on Monocle 24 more than once.
There has also been, in the commendable British tradition, a good deal of baleful joking. In this instance, it has mostly been an expression of the fact that, for all the time that the nation has had to prepare, nobody is certain what they’re supposed to do or not do. The online mockery of awkward corporate gestures of respect and even of aspects of the official observances has been inventive and hilarious.
The funeral is Elizabeth II’s last act as an ambassador for the United Kingdom. It is, as we discussed on Saturday’s edition of The Foreign Desk, an extraordinary diplomatic conclave. It is the focus of global attention. As a spectacle, it will be an impressive advertisement for the UK but – inevitably and, indeed, deliberately – for a somewhat old-fashioned idea of it.
Which is why it seems a shame that there wasn’t a global audience of billions for what was on BBC Parliament over this past week: a live, round-the-clock feed from Westminster Hall, where the Queen’s flag-draped coffin lay in state. Broadcast without commentary, it was a curiously mesmerising spectacle – a randomised shuffle of ordinary folk who had been moved, for one reason or another, to wait in line for hours for their moment with their late monarch.
It would be a reach to draw overly sweeping conclusions about national character from this. Even if – and this is at the upper end of estimates – a million British people queued to pay their respects in person, that means 66 million didn’t. Nevertheless, this modest, easy-going and unfussy procession would have been at least as beguiling a depiction of modern Britain as the more formal observances and a more accurate one.
Andrew Mueller is a Monocle 24 news anchor and host of ‘The Foreign Desk’.