De mortuis

I’m used to finding that when I’m writing something, suddenly I’ll find one or two things online which are relevant to what I’m writing, and last week I was in the process of writing a meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures’ attitude to kings in relation to our wish for leaders when I heard that Queen Elizabeth had died.

Now, I hadn’t expected the effect this would have on me. My wife and myself have been rather expecting her to die soon – after all, she was 96. We’d also remarked that she was looking increasingly frail since the death of Prince Philip last year. I’m only a marginal supporter of monarchy as a system – I think it’s theoretically indefensible, whereas republics are theoretically a much better concept, but find that in practice, I am much happier with constitutional monarchs as exemplified by the UK and by several surviving European monarchs than I am with elected presidents, who in my eyes range from the inconsequential to the utterly awful. I also don’t much like public outpourings of grief. I have in mind that following the death of Princess Diana (of whom I was not a fan) and those after various celebrity figures over the years have died. I’m English enough not to like public displays of emotion.

But after a short period of shock (which I didn’t understand, considering it was an expected death), I found myself tearing up on several occasions. It felt much as it had when my mother and my mother-in-law had died – I felt this as a personal loss of a loved one. I hadn’t really thought I qualified as “loving” the Queen. So I’ve been searching for reasons why this might be the case.

Like most of the population, I’ve never known another monarch – Elizabeth was crowned a few months before I was born, after all. She has, therefore, been a fixture for my whole life, and the most celebrated of celebrities in this country. I’ve therefore seen and heard a lot of coverage of the various trials and tribulations she has been though, and listened to my fair share of Christmas messages from her (though I haven’t listened to those nearly as often as my wife and mother-in-law have – they would never miss those). I never met her myself (which I understand up to a third of the country can claim, at least having been within talking distance of her). I did once meet her late mother, who I didn’t much like instinctively – it seemed to me that although she was outwardly pleasant, her eyes did not smile and her manner seemed false. That was something which never seemed to be the case with Elizabeth. Everyone I know who had any contact with her (including my late father-in-law who was a naval surgeon-captain and was appointed one of many “QHP”s – queen’s honorary physician, so he did regular duties at Buckingham Palace when she always came to talk to him at the start of his shift) agreed that she seemed genuinely interested in them, was friendly and asked sensible questions about what they did. Those, incidentally, are things which most politicians I know fail dismally to achieve.

Sho occupied the position of constitutional monarch in what I regard as an exemplary fashion. She never made “political” statements, and that must have been agonisingly difficult as at the beginning of each session of parliament she delivered the “queen’s speech” setting out the government’s programme of action as “my government will” – and you just knew that a substantial amount of this she would disagree with. Not only did she not make political statements publically, she didn’t make them in any circumstances where they could get “leaked” to the press. She read and digested all the governmental paperwork put before her, and had until the last year a punishing calendar of public appearances, always seeming the same calm and concerned person she always did, no matter what was going on in her own life or in the press (which was not always very kind to her, and was savage to several of her family). Some of those were, at the government’s behest, with foreign leaders you just knew she would privately dislike thoroughly, some were on her own initiative in countries with which we had a chequered past (such as Ireland) where she went a significant way to mending relationships.

That doesn’t actually seem to me enough to warrant the depth of my feeling, though. Yes, the way she resembled my late mother and mother-in-law late in her life brought back to me feelings on losing those two strong maternal influences in my life, but even then? Yes, I am one of those who has in the past pledged loyalty to her (we do not have any equivalent in the UK to the US pledge of allegiance in schools, so most of us never do pledge to the monarch, but all of my late parents in law, father, wife and son have pledged loyalty to her as being in one or other of the armed services as well), but that is now a long time ago, and though I take oaths very seriously, they don’t have a major emotional charge.

I fancy that I also thought of her as representing Britain, and representing the best of Britain – and thus representing me. That is, of course, what a king, queen or other leader is supposed to be, the personal representation of their people. I have been acutely embarrassed to have as “leader of the country” Boris Johnson and now Liz Truss, for instance. The idea of “mother of us all” seems to me to ring true emotionally for Elizabeth.

There are circles online, however, where I find the reaction very different. Toby Buckle, in his Political Philosophy Podcast, which I generally have a lot of time for, suggests that the massive amount of media coverage and public grief is a celebration of monarchy as a thing, while acknowledging that she was personally a very impressive individual. He is a “soft republican”, in that he would prefer a republic but there are a lot of more important political objectives for him – but as I indicated above, I can easily sympathise with soft republicanism. But he sees the praise for her as being praise for monarchy, and therefore considers the fairly widespread criticisms of monarchy as being entirely justified in the circumstances.

I tend to hold to the principle of “de mortuis, nil nisi bonum” (of the dead say nothing but good), which not infrequently means saying little or nothing about someone who has died. I held to that principle when Margaret Thatcher died, for instance – I thoroughly disliked the woman, and even more hated the policies which she enacted and stood for. However, I recoiled when friends posted “ding dong, the witch is dead”. I could understand it, though. I was therefore shocked and, frankly, felt personally attacked when an online acquaintance used the same words of Queen Elizabeth. Others have posted picture of people making rude gestures in front of a mockup of her tombstone. There has also been something of a flood of examinations of the often appalling actions of the UK in colonialism and in particular in the treatment of native people, with, not infrequently, the suggestion that she was personally responsible for the continuation of those (and yes, many parts of the former empire did not achieve independence until her reign). But she had no real power to influence government policy in those areas (or, indeed, any other). Yes, due to our constitutional system, every act of parliament had to have her assent, but that is something which has not been withheld by any monarch since 1708, and it is inconceivable that a modern monarch would do that. After all, they hold the monarchy entirely due to the actions of parliament, and what parliament can give, parliament can take away – and assuredly would if a monarch interfered in this way.

A young friend commented that she did not have to accept her position, citing the case of Edward VIII who abdicated rather than renouncing the divorced Wallis Simpson in 1936. That is, of course, technically true – but Elizabeth had been brought up to feel an overpowering sense of duty to the role (which she obviously exemplified for over 70 years). It is telling, perhaps, that Edward is known to have apologised to his brother, Elizabeth’s father, who became George VI, but it is understood that when he said to Elizabeth that he had apologised to her father, she commented that he should also have apologised to her. I’m sure that she would have regarded abdication as betraying both her family and the nation. Both family and nation would probably have regarded it as the same. I don’t think she felt she had that choice.

It’s probably worth commenting, before going on, that those reactions I took offence at took place during the first couple of days after her death. A week later, I’ve become rather sick of incessant coverage of the progress of her body from Balmoral via Edinburgh to London, and the “lying in state”. There is a lot of other news available – we have a cost of living crisis, and none of the other daily events have stopped happening, but they are being pushed to one side. Government has basically stopped, as far as I can see. Now, this has started to irritate me, and I’m on balance a supporter of the monarchy and definitely an admirer of the late Queen – how much more is it going to irritate those who do not feel the emotional attachment I’ve mentioned above?

Now, I am definitely sensitive to the fact that Britain has had a very unpleasant history in some respects, which I mentioned part of above. Having at some point ruled and/or invaded all but a very few countries on the earth, that is inevitable. Indeed, the United Kingdom starts with a colonial appropriation of Wales, and continues with the same in Ireland. The monarchy equally has an unpleasant history – until the 17th century, when we had a revolution, executed Charles I and for a while were a republic, monarchs exercised tyrannical power. It wasn’t exactly dictatorial power since at least William I in 1066 – there was always a need to balance royal power with that of the aristocracy, and increasingly with that of lower ranks of society, but it was frequently arbitrary and savage (as witness Henry VII and Henry VIII systematically eliminating other families who might have a claim on the throne, Elizabeth I’s Star Chamber setting on one side any concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and using torture to extract confessions or the horrendous punishments dealt out through the years to those thought of as “traitors”). I could wish, on occasion, that we had an equivalent of Rammstein’s “Deutschland” (although I feel the video adds much to the sentiment expressed, it has powerful and disturbing imagery and I advise caution). How, they ask, can we at the same time hate what our country has been and nevertheless love it?

But did Elizabeth II, granted that she was symbolic, symbolise monarchy, or her ancestors’ actions, or the actions of governments through the ages? Not to me, at least. To me, she might have been symbolic of a progressive decolonisation, a humanising of the monarch and the monarchy, a willingness to accept past faults of colonisation and repression and a desire to move forward to something better (although again, those were actions primarily of her governments, even if she seems to have embraced all of them with pleasure). Mostly, though, she was symbolic of the nation as a whole, the people of the United Kingdom (and of the Commonwealth), and of all those qualities of duty, compassion, warmth and dedication which I admired in her.

Those, I mourn. While I have hopes for Charles III, who has had a very long apprenticeship, she is an impossible act to follow. We will not see her like again.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.