Mike Wayne questions the historical significance of the Queen’s death, while the history of imperial violence and today’s economic crisis are sidelined
As soon as her death was announced, I tried to erect a media blockade. It was regularly breached, however, by others in the household who would turn on the radio in fascination and horror. And since I teach propaganda, I felt a professional obligation to tune in or read the odd article in the press. One can only hope that this was Tory Britain lining up on the streets to watch the coffin travel from Balmoral to Edinburgh, or queue to see an empty coffin at Westminster Palace draped in flags and surrounded with the tourist photo-op figures of the Queen’s guards in their red tunics and bearskin hats, the yeoman warders or ‘beefeaters’ associated with the Tower of London, and the Household cavalry with their chrome helmets.
Of course, we are used to the media treating the Tory party and Tory Britain as synonymous with ‘the nation’. And just in case there were any wrinkles in that tapestry, dissenters were helpfully removed from the crowds by the police. It was not always possible for the Establishment to erase recalcitrant anti-Royalist sentiments. The Celtic fans who disrupted the minute’s silence in a match against St Mirren’s unfurled a banner: ‘If you hate the royal family clap your hands’, and they sung that line and clapped with gusto for sixty seconds. There were too many for the police to arrest in that instance.
The American journalist John Reed wrote a classic book about the Russian revolution called Ten Days That Shook The World. Our journalists have helped deliver eleven days that bolstered the establishment. Celebrities with very different class origins, David Beckham from Leytonstone and Tilda Swinton from Scottish aristocracy, joined the queue of ‘commoners’ to demonstrate that one and all were ‘loyal subjects’. Poet Roger McGough was invited to write some mawkish rubbish: ‘She spoke volumes quietly/Is everywhere and will remain so/Our shared interest, or common currency/The nation cannot let her go.’
Signifier of imperialism
Indeed, she was the Forest Gump of The Nation. Her longevity meant that she had been a presence in all the major historical moments, from the Second World War, where The Daily Telegraph tells us she became a ‘mechanic and ambulance driver’, to the Northern Irish peace process. Sinn Fein’s leaders spoke in glowing terms of the monarch’s role in advancing peace. That role was to consecrate the unity of the British state symbolically, a unity that was forcefully enlarged into a world imperial power.
By the time she was born, the Empire was being rebranded into the Commonwealth, but this wealth was not held in common, and not everyone has forgotten the force and violence with which the British state held onto that wealth. Uju Anya, a Nigerian and professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, was in particularly unforgiving mood on Twitter when news broke of the monarch’s impending death. As the symbol of a ‘genocidal empire’, she hoped her death would be ‘excruciating’.
That’s personal, from her to her. The figure of the person has played an important role in the coverage. The person – who has died – helps shield the institution from critical scrutiny (the grieving family, etc), while at the same time the institutions invest the person with everything they have got in terms of transcendent grandeur. She was History, apparently. The Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges got into trouble when he noted that she wouldn’t be the only old person to die this winter, with the cost-of-living crisis rampant (you may remember that, it was in the news until quite recently). So while longevity helps, it clearly isn’t enough to count as history, since most old people are regarded by the British State as a troublesome unproductive burden, hence we have one of the lowest levels of pension provision in Europe.
No, being historic really is about deeds. And here another important theme comes through in the coverage: duty and service. These are the words which are recycled faithfully by The Queuers as well as the media. The woman with a private property portfolio of between £3-4 billion was paid handsomely from the public purse for her ceremonial role as Head of State, but apparently a lifetime of walkabouts, smiling, shaking hands, royal banquets, parties and confidential chats with elected politicians was something we could all feel was an immense contribution to humanity.
The gulf between her and her subjects was filled in by a media confection that meant people ‘felt’ emotionally touched by her death in the same way as they did by Diana. The little we knew of her as a person could be filled out by the elites who had met her and who assured us that she had led a good, ethical life. But here the person and the institution become entangled once more. Is it possible to lead a good, ethical life inside the monarchy?
They have some fine royal traditions. Husbands and sons who marry and then have their mistress or mistresses on the side. Sons with business connections to dubious Middle Eastern dictatorships and arms companies. A son who for years was a close friend with a notorious paedophile. A grandson who fled the family and the country because of racism towards his mixed-race wife. A queen who was evidently unmoved by the death of the mother of her grandchildren.
The bishop on the radio who talked of her Christian devotion and his hope that she would be a symbol of unity going forward was playing an ideological tune as old as time. It would be far better for the Royals if they could be retired from their constitutional role and then maybe they could work out their weird family dynamics in private and peace. As for history, now that the media spectacle is coming to an end, it will be breaking through once more.
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