As I write this piece we are nearing the end of the most extraordinary period of mourning this nation has ever witnessed. I was a small child in 1952 when King George VI died. I knew it must have been important because we were called into a special assembly at my infants’ school and were sent home early. But the big difference between now and then, of course, was the television coverage. There wasn’t any – or not for most of us – for the obvious reason that we didn’t have a TV set. I can’t even begin to imagine what my parents’ generation would have made of the saturation coverage to which we have been exposed since the Queen died. Massively more than for any single event since the birth of broadcasting a century ago. And my question is: what effect has it had on you?
Let’s make one or two basic assumptions. One is that most Britons mourn the death of someone who has, inevitably, played a significant part in our lives in one way or another. At the very least, we were all conscious of her presence at various points in our nation’s history. Many were impressed by her dedication to duty and regarded her as a vital part of the machinery of state. Some regard her as the greatest monarch in the history of these islands.
But a minority were sceptical. They acknowledged that she had served to the best of her ability for an inordinately long period but questioned whether an hereditary monarchy was really the most appropriate form of government for a democratic country in the 21st century. Others have no doubts. For them, monarchy is an anachronism that has long since passed its sell-by date and must be replaced by a republic.
For those in the first category the days since her death have proved beyond any doubt that the nation is as solidly monarchist as it has ever been. You have only to switch on the television or radio for proof of that. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious there has never been a single event that has attracted so many hours of television and radio coverage. And the content and tone of the coverage has conveyed – with a vanishingly small number of exceptions – one single message. The nation has lost perhaps the most beloved monarch in its history to whom we owe a massive debt of gratitude. The countless thousands of those queuing for a glimpse of the royal hearse passing by or standing in line for endless, chilly hours in the hope of a glimpse of the coffin lying in state repeated that message for the cameras over and over again. Some said they felt a personal loss. Some even said the Queen had felt as much a part of their lives as their own mothers or grandmothers. It was a personal bereavement. Others mourned the loss of a national figure who, above all, had held the nation together in times of national crisis or sorrow.
Not even the most fervent sceptic could deny their sincerity. But they also point out that the number of people who have turned out is not unprecedented. It’s just that it has been such a very long time since anything like this has happened.
The historian David Olusuga told the BBC: “We saw the same scenes in 1910 when Edward VII was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey. Again, half a million people queued, there were queues again that were miles long, queues through the night, queues in the streets and at the funeral millions were on the streets. When the Queen’s father died, a third of a million people queued to see his coffin in Westminster Hall. This is entirely normal, [but] it’s been seven decades since we’ve been through this.”
Some sceptics draw a distinction between those who have been lining the streets to show their respect on a personal level to a great monarch and those who were there simply because they wanted to be a part of a great historical event. It is obvious that we may never see her like again. Elizabeth was a young woman when she ascended to the throne, whereas King Charles is already 73. And if he lives to his mother’s great age Prince William will be in his mid sixties when he becomes king. So the possibility of another monarch reigning for seventy years is vanishingly small.
There is also, of course, the threat always lurking in the background for any monarchy: republicanism. In a democratic country such as ours, it is the will of the people that will ultimately decide.
On the face of it King Charles has little to worry about on that score. Opinion polls over the past thirty years or so have shown pretty consistently that only about one in five of us would prefer the United Kingdom to be a republic. At least two-thirds want to stick with a monarch. During the Queen’s diamond jubilee that rose to 80 per cent, but the latest figures confirm that we have settled back to two-thirds – still a pretty comfortable majority. It’s when that majority is examined a bit more closely that monarchists might begin to feel a little uneasy – especially when the age of the royalists is taken into account.
Many of us who’ve made a point over the past week of talking to young people about the death of the Queen will have discovered a pretty consistent view. They seem slightly baffled as to what all the fuss is about. A typical reaction I’ve found is a bit of a shrug and a throwaway: “Well she was very, very old wasn’t she?” Try to dig a little deeper, I’ve found, and they’re simply not terribly interested. That may be because her successor is also, in their youthful view, very old and perhaps they’d be more interested if William and Kate were to become the next king and queen, but it might also be because they really don’t care very much and they’d be pretty relaxed about dumping the monarch and electing a president. That’s what a rather more scientific analysis suggests. According to YouGov polling figures those who are over 65 support the monarchy by more than ten to one. Those who are under 25 are much more closely split. Maybe they will change their minds as they get older. Maybe they won’t. In which case, there might well be problems ahead. Another rather worrying poll finding is that Conservatives, predictably, support the monarchy by a massive majority but about a third of Labour voters would prefer a republic.
Something else that might give King Charles a few sleepless nights is his own popularity. It’s hardly surprising that the latest YouGov polling showed him to be far less popular than his mother and it’s entirely likely that he will have gained a great deal of support throughout these past harrowing days because of his dignified bearing - leaky pen tantrums aside! And the latest poll does indeed suggest that the public is more than willing to allow him a honeymoon. But he would be less than human, given his many years filling a less sensitive role, if he were not tempted by the occasional indiscretion.
These are all arguments, the republican sceptics claim, that suggest the nation is nowhere near as united behind the monarchy as the crowds in the streets might suggest. Indeed, they add, it is also possible that many broadly royalist supporters will have been irritated and sometimes even angry with what they consider to be an overreaction to the Queen’s death. Was it really necessary, they ask, for government to have come to a halt when the nation is facing a real crisis affecting ordinary people? Was it really necessary for a toddlers’ nursery to have cancelled its weekly “Rhyme Time”!
To which many will say: look at the way so many other countries have reacted to the death of Her Majesty. Count the world leaders, including the most powerful man on the planet, anxious to display their admiration by making their own journeys to London for the funeral. And, finally, take another look at those ordinary people prepared to face so many hours for a couple of minutes in the presence of her coffin. Ask them, years from now, if they thought it was worth it.
What’s your view?
Do let us know.