This is the BBC News from London. London Bridge is down.
Eleven words and two phrases written decades ago, were ready to be spoken when the Queen of the United Kingdom died on the 8th of September in the early hours of the afternoon.
Behind this simple sentence stands a protocol, a holy ritual of wonder and ceremony that has been prepared, revised, and practised for years, if not even decades. Mere mortals, as we are, are not allowed to peak behind the closed doors of Buckingham Palace, an institution, a monarchy that reaches back a thousand years, to the days of William the Conqueror. All we get to see is the ritual and ceremony in front of the cameras.
It sounds very grand, mysterious, magical, almost ominous. This protocol, which was unleashed by the BBC, stands by itself like a prophecy. But it does not foretell the coming of a new monarch. We always knew that Charles would become King and inherit the throne from his mother.
This phrase stands for something much more important. It speaks of the real end of the United Kingdom, of an ending that has long been in the making. Of an ending that has been visible, in sight, and in touch for decades already. The only one standing between this ending of an illusionary kingdom was Queen Elizabeth II.
Her story, her figure, the Queen, a character she was, and at the same time played, was indeed vital for the prolongation of the United Kingdom and its commonwealth. In her early reign, she was regarded as the most royal and most well-known woman on the planet. In her later reign, she transformed into a regal and constant figure, holding a troubled United Kingdom together. By the end of her rule, she was the woman everyone knew, the face of a grandmother to a nation falling apart, and a head of state everybody recognised. She stood in the eye, a rock unmoved, of a hurricane swiping over an island nation, ready to be swallowed by the waves of the Atlantic, just like the island kingdom of Atlantis once was.
It was an image the Queen herself, the institution, the firm, so to speak, her family, and the media had perfected. The most essential thing about this image was the absence of speech, or to put it simply, a silence expressed with a charming smile. This silence and smile held it all together and distracted the United Kingdom and its commonwealth almost every day. Not only was the Queen the person to hold it all together, but she was also a historic reminder, a breathing and living creature of a lost world, of a lost empire that will never return.
The Queen connected the first half of the twentieth century with the present. She inherited a throne that belonged to a King Emperor, an empire where the sun never sets. She lived through the darkest days of Britain and was there when her country won World War II. She was the link between a world when Britain was indeed an imperialistic power, and the centre stage of the world’s economy, politics, and culture.
But already before her reign began, and during her reign, all this began to crumble. The colonies turned into the commonwealth, which the Queen called ‘Our imperial family’ and was often referred to as ‘a family we all belong to’. It was a ‘family’ she pledged allegiance and service to in her infamous speech on her 21st birthday in 1947. It was one of the few times she addressed her people directly other than in her Christmas messages later in her reign. Most of the time, she remained as silent as the impenetrable walls of Windsor Castle.
It was the silence during her reign that made her rule so successful. As she became older, she transformed into a mother figure for countries that fought for independence and tried to break away from the United Kingdom. Some of them managed to do so, but many remained part of the commonwealth, especially because the Queen was ever present as a sweet and silent monarch.
Silence is the absence of noise, and noise would attract listeners. As long as the Queen stayed silent and smiled, no one really listened. Who would want to listen to millions of people starving and dying because of the exploitation of the United Kingdom? Who would want to listen to the echoes of genocides and massacres committed by Britain in many of their colonies, and later commonwealth countries, in the 19th and 20th centuries? Who would want to listen to the bloody horrors inflicted on indigenous peoples from North America all the way to Australia? Who wants to hear about all that when you have a little grandmother dressed in bright colours, who smiles and waves and reminds you, you are part of her family? You are part of a multicultural global community. She is your Queen. She is your imperial mother, and with every smile she reminds you how lovely it is to have a royal family.
The Queen’s silence, the lack of her speech, drove out the horrors of the past. With her regality and her class, she painted an image of a world of widespread happiness. The Queen, the institution that stands behind her, and a conservative government have always supported this image of a grand nation and the commonwealth. It was, of course, a very smart image, one that worked almost flawlessly throughout the second half of the 20th century.
The older the Queen became, the more royal, the more constant, the more immortal this image grew. But the problem is, the Queen, disguised by all the rituals, ceremony, her impeccable designer costumes, her cute corgis, her gloved hands waving to the crowds, she remains, unfortunately, a mortal woman. And mortals die. And the other week, she really did die.
With her death, this image of a mother to a nation and the commonwealth began to fall apart. When Elizabeth Regina died, she did not die alone. The image of an imperial kingdom died with her. With her the link to the glory days of a nation winning a world war and clinging to the image of colonies transformed into a commonwealth died.
So, when one watches people mourning the Queen on television, paying tribute, paying their last respect to their Queen, first in Scotland, and now thousands of people queuing in London, one does not only watch them mourn over a dead body, but one sees them mourn over a dying kingdom. Because the fact is, this blessed realm built on fire and blood, this Queendom Elizabeth Regina has held together for over seventy years, is gone.
It was the final scene of season three of The Crown where Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) explains exactly the function of the Queen. The two royal sisters have a conversation about the jubilee. The Queen (Olivia Coleman) asks her sister if she should go through with the jubilee. She is concerned it all might backfire. Her sister simply answers: You must do it.
The Queen then wonders aloud what they are celebrating. In her time as monarch, no such thing as a second golden Elizabethan age came to pass. It did not play out the way her first prime minister and mentor, Winston Churchill, promised. All that’s happened on her watch was seeing the place fall apart. She asks her sister: What have I actually achieved?
To which Princess Margaret replies: You’ve been calm, stable-
Useless and unhelpful. The Queen adds.
To which Princess Margaret, ever the royalist, answers: It’s only fallen apart when we say it has. That’s the thing about the monarchy. We paper over the cracks. And if what we do is loud, and grand, and confident enough, no one will notice that all around us it’s fallen apart. That’s the point of us. Not us. Of you. You cannot flinch. Cause if you show a single crack, we see it isn’t a crack but a chasm and we all fall in. So, you must hold it all together.
Must I do that alone? The Queen asks her sister.
Princess Margaret answers: There is only one Queen.
This conversation really is the epitome of everything that is going on right now in the United Kingdom. The seemingly immortal Elizabeth Regina has not only cracked but has broken. Enveloping the crown, the institution, the commonwealth, the United Kingdom in one mortal woman was of course, reckless. Their Queen would die sooner or later, in this case later (because she did reign for a very long time), and everything would crumble eventually.
The institution, the old men who work behind the closed doors of Buckingham Palace, should have acted like concerned parents when the family dog died. Instead of confronting their children with the reality of death, they could have replaced the Queen with another old lady that looked just like her. No one would have noticed.
They have probably realised, however, that replacing a Queen is not as simple as replacing a dog. As Helena Bonham Carter has put it perfectly simple: There is only one Queen.
And this Queen is dead. There is no going back. Everything she connected with the past, everything she upheld and at the same time disguised, is gone. This immortal image of Elizabeth Regina, perfected by herself and the institution, has died. Are the people in the United Kingdom really mourning her death? A person they have never met? Or are they mourning something they got to know and understand through Queen Elizabeth II?
In every interview, the mourners say she was so good, so nice, so perfect. On the outside, yes, of course she was. But none of these people, none of us, actually knew her. Queen Elizabeth was very aware of everything she upheld and disguised during her reign. All the rain that falls upon the soil of the United Kingdom could never wash away all the blood the crown and the United Kingdom have spilled in their hundreds of years of bloody history.
If the people of Britain did not know their Queen, who are they mourning then? As long as the Queen was alive, the people could say: We are great, we are a strong commonwealth. Look at our Queen, she never falls.
Now, she has fallen, the uncrackable has cracked, and a chasm has opened up, and all of Britain falls inside. The people do not mourn their Queen. The people mourn everything the Queen represented. The decline of the political power as a global nation has been palpable for some time. But now the waves of Brexit are finally breaking on the shores of Britain, and slowly but steadily they begin to wash over the island like a tidal wave.
Politicians and influential activists from the commonwealth countries have raised their voices and demand their independence. Australia, one of the largest commonwealth countries has opened up a heated discussion. Some argue that it’s now the perfect moment to step away from the monarchy and become a republic. Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Bahamas or Belize want to follow the example of Barbados and become independent as quickly as possible. Even closer to home, Scotland is seriously playing with the idea of not only breaking away from the commonwealth but from the United Kingdom altogether. As an independent country they wish to return to the European Union.
A post-pandemic economy and a Europe at war are not helping. Great Britain is facing inflation and problems are crashing in left, right and centre. A Tory government, rotten to the core, exploiting the public, privatising the NHS, making inhuman decisions every day, throws the kingdom into even further disarray.
Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are currently malnourished because the government chose not to provide free meals at school any longer. This especially happens in areas with low-income households. By winter, every fourth household will have to decide whether they will heat or eat dinner because the living costs have skyrocketed. Through leaky windows, despair and depression will find their way into the homes of many Britons.
The people of the United Kingdom do not mourn their Queen. They mourn themselves. They just don’t know it yet. Their Queen is dead and winter is coming.
They used to say, God save the Queen. Now they stand in the thousands, proclaiming God save the King. But when God is busy saving the King, who is going to save the people of the United Kingdom?