Why does nobody know how to react to the Queen Mother's death?
The Queen Mother outlived the vast majority of her generation by a good few years. Her death was hardly a tragedy; and her life, catalogued through numerous colour supplements, was clearly enjoyable but not all that interesting to the rest of us.
But the reaction to the Queen Mum’s death is interesting, as it tells us a lot about ourselves, and the uncertainty with which we view traditional institutions and values in the world today.
As institutions from the BBC to parliament to the press fall over themselves in an attempt to work out how we should react to this long-awaited occasion, a clear picture emerges of the British Monarchy 2002. Not revered, not reviled – just irrelevant.
The row over the BBC’s decision not to sacrifice its Easter schedule for blanket eulogies to the Queen Mum, and its apparently even more outrageous edict that its news presenters should not wear black ties, has provoked shrill criticisms from the Daily Mail about how the BBC has changed. The BBC has retorted that the real change is in the viewing public’s interest in all matters monarchical.
A report in The Times (London) seems to support this claim: 5.8million people watched the 9pm news on Saturday evening, a typical weekend figure, compared with the 12million who tuned in on 7 October 2001 when the bombing of Afghanistan started. (1) The UK Guardian reports that the BBC received more than 1500 complaints from viewers saying there was either too much coverage of the Queen mother’s death or too many interruptions to normal programming, and just two complaints that there was not enough coverage (2).
There are many general criticisms that could be made of the BBC’s tendency to pander to the ratings, and its lowest-common-denominator approach to broadcasting what it thinks the public wants. But the BBC’s self-justification in this case – that it was reflecting the mood of the nation – seems pretty hard to fault. However the royalist press tries to big up the idea of national mourning, to the public this is just another celebrity death.
Parliament has been recalled, in the spirit of marking an occasion of national importance. But many MPs have complained, asking why there should be a debate about this, and yet no debate about Afghanistan or the Middle East. Prime minister Tony Blair is going ahead with his trip to the USA for Afghanistan-talks with President George W Bush – as if to say (quite rightly) that by comparison with world events, the Queen Mother’s death isn’t that important. Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack has called for the creation of a new bank holiday to commemorate her death. Presumably, this was meant to testify to his devotion – actually, it smacks of opportunism. Can’t get ‘em to mourn? Hand out a holiday instead!
All of this uncertainty and painful tokenism is as inevitable as the Queen Mother’s eventual demise. For over a decade, the monarchy has been on an inexorable slide away from relevance, let alone importance or affection. Witness the lacklustre preparations for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – the sense that something must be done to celebrate it, but the absence of excitement about what there might be to celebrate. All anybody knows is that this won’t be another 1977. And remember the reaction to the death of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, less than two months ago – the odd bouquet on a patch of grass, as potent symbol of how little it really touched people. The comparison then, of course, was with the reaction to Princess Diana’s death. But Diana only helped to ensure that there could never be another Royal Funeral, in the traditional sense.
David Aaronovitch, writing in the UK Independent, tells how he was in charge of the BBC’s royal obituaries in 1993. Had the Queen Mother died then, he says, her obsequious obituary ‘would have been screened at the same time on all BBC TV channels, which would otherwise have closed down for the best part of two days, showing a flag at half-mast and playing sombre music’ (3). This was less than a decade ago.
But the sudden death of Princess Diana in 1997 upset the applecart, so to speak. Diana’s death could not be given the pre-planned treatment – it relied on reacting, and covering the reaction. And because of what Diana represented in relation to the monarchy, her death brought a few things to a head.
With its connotations with tradition, religion, Empire, hereditary wealth and elite privilege, the monarchy stands for just about everything that Blair’s Britain is purportedly forged against. It is an antiquated institution with no modern justification. Part of Diana’s popularity came from how she styled herself as being against the old royal establishment, a victim of the House of Windsor and its rules, traditions and values. Her death was a catalyst for criticisms about the out-of-touch character of the royal family to be made more openly, and more bluntly. So it was that, in the weeks between Diana’s death and her funeral, when the Royal Family came under fire for its coldness, the royalist Sun came out with the extraordinary statement that the royals were ‘an alien breed…stuck in a nineteenth-century time warp’ (4).
But the anti-monarchy sentiment that came to the fore with Diana’s death was not based on any pro-republican spirit – or even upon the right criticisms. The royal family was criticised, not for its status as an undemocractic institution with too much power and money and no accountability, but for being a harsh, uncaring family that stood too much on ceremony. The call went up for an equally undemocratic institution that was more self-effacing and could cry in public. What we are left with is a view that is neither for the monarchy, nor against it. This is what throws public institutions into a quandary when dealing with something like the death of the Queen Mother.
Everybody knows that the traditional approach does not work, because the monarchy is an irrelevance. But nobody has the guts to treat it as such – least of all Tony Blair, who prides himself on being a modern man yet describes the Queen as the ‘best of British’. There is a sense that we need national institutions and shared national experiences, but those that we have – royal families, royal funerals – can’t quite do it for us. And so the supplements come out, the mourning is declared, the motions are gone through with a palpable lack of conviction.
It is almost as though, having had the obituary on file for decades, the press feels obliged to run it – while at the same time either remarking on how little people seem to be interested, or making up fairytales about the widespread public grief. And faced with the problem about how to connect this gin-swigging, Ascot-addicted overdrawn centenarian with the world we live in today, they fall back on a trick that owes more to Diana than to decades of royal deaths – presenting the Queen Mum as ‘somebody like us’.
The Queen Mother’s supposed role as a ‘People’s monarch’, with her East End walkabouts and reported down-to-earthness, has been hyped beyond belief. But even this is not considered to be enough to bring a sense of connection; and so they go for the granny line. ‘A woman of her century’ reads the strapline across the top of the Observer’s commemorative edition. Every newspaper has eulogised the Queen Mother as a symbol of the wartime generation – not just Charles’ magical gran, but your grandparents too!
The Times’ Libby Purves looks back fondly at a generation of people who ‘dislike the new culture of victimhood, litigation and constant formulaic appraisal, preferring instead to operate on trust’, and bemoans our new generation, who is ‘too neurotic about personal “fulfilment” to value gentle ordinariness, hidden lives, unsung heroes, long patient marriages, slowly mastered crafts’ (5). Through the Queen Mum, it seems, we can skirt the tricky question of what she meant to us as a royal and take the opportunity to wax lyrical about the nicer aspects of a world lost to history.
But what a load of nonsense, really. The Queen Mother did not symbolise a generation; she symbolised, in many ways, the most degraded aspects of the British royal family – indolent, frivolous, fundamentally uninteresting. And for this, we’re supposed to don the trappings of mourning?
Down with ‘The People’s Monarchy’, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Palace fury at BBC’s missing black tie, The Times (London), 2 April 2002
(2) BBC deluged by complaints over Queen Mother coverage, Guardian, 2 April 2002
(3) ‘Hypocrisy, hysteria and the BBC’, Independent, 2 April 2002
(4) ‘Show us there’s a heart in the House of Windsor’, Sun, 3 September 1997
(5) No time for ‘I’m bored’ in a life lived to the full, The Times (London), 2 April 2002
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