By: John Elliott
When Queen Elizabeth II’s mother died in March 2002, I was in London and wrote in a column (for India’s Business Standard) that the massive adulation for her memory “showed how useful high-profile deaths and funerals can be for dynasties.” Throughout history, they had “provided occasions for families to re-establish their supremacy and national importance.” Political parties can gain from them and “the death of a revered royal enables the family to present itself to its people at its best.”
That is what is being achieved here with (again quoting from 2002) “carefully calibrated pomp and grand precision.” The events then, as now, had “left no-one in any doubt that Britain can still do at least one thing well – stage grand pageants that draw the people onto the streets and bind the country together.” The royalty had “a greater role to play at a time when the British identity is waning and disillusionment with politicians is growing because it is the one institution that can bind the country together”.
Now, there is a national need to be distracted from current problems at a time when Britain’s prospects in the near term are not bright. After the suffering of the Covid-19 pandemic and the more recent economic upheavals of Brexit, energy prices are soaring, recession is looming, and the pound is at its lowest level since 1985 – and there is a new untested prime minister, Liz Truss, who took office just two days before the Queen died.
It was, of course, inevitable that Queen Elizabeth would one day die. But it seemed as if it would never actually need to happen, certainly not until after she reached the age of 100 in four years’ time. When the monarch suddenly did go on September 8, it caused a shock that tens of thousands of people are now coming to terms with by joining a long queue for up to 24 hours to spend just a few moments at her Lying in State.
This need to come to terms with what has happened is one of the main reasons why so many have traveled to London from across the country to show affectionate respect and say goodbye to the only British head of state most of them have known – more than 80 percent of the country’s 57 million population were born after the Queen inherited the crown from her father King George VI in 1952.
“Respect” was the reply I heard most often on the morning of September 16 when I asked people in the queue (above) on the River Thames path at Lambeth why they had come. Many had got up at 3 am or earlier to walk five miles through the day for just a few moments at the Lying in State. (check out the high-speed video here)
Making new friends and sharing food are all part of the overall experience that makes it memorable and worthwhile, even if it means walking slowly through a bitter cold night – organized and helped by police, security contractors, volunteer civil servants, and young scouts and guides.
David Beckham, the former English football captain and star, summed it up when he said on BBC TV: ”We all want to be here together and we all want to experience something where we celebrate the amazing life of our queen. Something like this is meant to be shared together eating Pringles, sherbet lemon, and doughnuts and drinking coffee.”
In the queue, Ben and Diana told me they remembered when they were children, watching the Queen being crowned in 1953 on their families’ first black and white televisions. “We need to make this gesture to say goodbye,” Ben said, “We are here for Charles and William too, to give them succor and show our support for them now as their grieve and in the future,” Diana added referring to the new King and his son and heir.
Everyone seemed relaxed and cheerful, even though most had been in line since 5 am or earlier and probably had five hours or more to go. They could see the Palace of Westminster, where the Queen was lying in state, across the Thames, but knew there were three or four more hours ahead including a final park where the queue stretches airport-style in circulating parallel lines.
Woo Seung Shin, originally from Korea, had linked up with six other people he’d never met before. They’d got on so well, they’d set up a WhatsApp group called Queen’s Guys and Dolls (below). “We’ve been together 10 hours,” said Sonya Madden, a Hong Kong banker turned fashion designer. “That’s the equivalent of four or five dates”
Shin was there because he’d met the Queen personally and talked with her as head of a Korean scientists and engineers association in 2004 when his country’s president had visited the UK.
The mood changes and the crowd becomes quieter in the final minutes after crossing a large, tented security checking area. Then people finally enter Westminster Hall, as I did soon after the Lying in State began on the 14th.
Arriving at the top of a wide flight of stairs, you see a dramatic sea of light and a pool of color with the Queen’s coffin in the middle of a breathtaking image of purple, gold, and red. It is raised on a high plinth with the spectacular Imperial State Crown and symbolic orb and scepter, with white flowers, draped in the Royal Sovereign flag. On steps around the plinth stand helmeted guardsmen and brightly colored Beefeaters (who guard the Tower of London), heads bowed.
Down the stairs, people file slowly past the coffin, some crying, some making the sign of the cross, some bowing, while others gaze and savor what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“She never put a foot wrong, I felt I knew her,” Morna from Hereford had told me in the queue. “She never gave up on us, I wanted to say thank you,” someone else said.
Yutao, from Guangzhou in China, who has lived in the UK for 11 years and had heard about the Queen before he and his partner arrived, simply said, ”We wanted to show our respect.” That point was repeated by another young man who told me, “You’d be annoyed in 10 years’ time, looking back, if you hadn’t come.”
Thousands of people are today traveling into London for the climax on Monday when the funeral takes place in Westminster Abbey and the coffin then leaves, first drawn on a gun carriage and then by car, for burial in Windsor, an hour or so’s drive away.
The area around the Palace of Westminster, which houses the parliament and the ancient Westminster Hall, has become a closely controlled security zone in the past week. Pedestrians are free to walk along designated pavement corridors, but streets are sealed to traffic with heavy barricades.
There are expected to be 10,000 police in what has been described as London’s biggest ever security operation to protect the 500 heads of state, prime ministers, and other dignitaries who are expected to attend the funeral – including President Joe Biden, and President Droupadi Murmu from India but not Vladimir Putin, who was not invited because of his ordered invasion of Ukraine.
Xi Jinping was invited despite China’s actions in Hong Kong and repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority. He is sending Vice President Wang Qishan who, however, has been banned by Speakers of the two houses of parliament from visiting the Lying in State because China has put sanctions on some MPs.
There is less instant respect overall now than in 2002 for the House of Windsor monarchy, and King Charles has to prove its value in order to preserve the dynasty. His main aim, along with establishing his own charisma and popularity, is to unite the UK at a time when Scotland is threatening a second independence referendum that could cause ructions in Wales and Northern Ireland – all places he has visited in the past week.
So far, Charles has done well with Queen Camilla. But inevitably, not everything has gone to plan. Aside from squabbles about how visiting dignitaries should be treated, the King has twice in the past few days revealed his known imperious impatience with details.
On the first occasion, an inkstand was stupidly placed on a cramped table between the King and the documents he had to sign, so he impatiently wiggled his wrist to demand it should be removed. Then, a day or two later, he forgot the date that had to go with his signature, and the pen he was given leaked. “I can’t bear this bloody thing . . . every stinking time,” he exclaimed, walking off – all recorded close-up on television.
That has led to him being mocked on TikTok and Twitter where there is only a flicker of sympathy for the immense pressure he has been under when he has just lost his mother and has done all the traveling, speeches at religious and civic occasions, and greeting crowds.
Now there is a weekend of meeting people involved in all the ceremonies, visiting the Lying in State queues with Prince William, and greeting foreign leaders before the funeral on Monday.
The celebratory pilgrimage has brought tens of thousands not just to the Lying in State, but also to nearby Green Park where masses of flowers have been laid since last weekend, and to the area around Buckingham Palace, the main royal residence. More are pouring into the capital to be here during the weekend and on Monday.
They are all showing their “respect” for the Queen but Charles, while dealing with his own personal grief, is also working to ensure that the second part of the saying “The Queen is dead, long live the King” comes true for him.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant. He is currently in the UK.