Our thanks to Alexandra Hall Hall, former diplomat and ambassador, for her kind permission to reproduce this thought-provoking piece. Ed
Many will know I’ve been going through a slowly unrolling identity crisis, as I try to grapple with the UK I thought I knew, and the UK I’m beginning to see with fresh eyes. The events around the Queen’s death have brought this into sharper focus. What country are we?
My middle class background, my loyalist/royalist family and social circle, and my long career as a “Crown” civil servant, proud to be briefly titled “Her Majesty’s Ambassador”, and to have even met the Queen, mean I have strong embedded feelings of deference/respect to the Crown and Great Britain.
I genuinely admired the Queen, if only for keeping her calm and dignity through decades of change, and some truly difficult personal and political moments. As the Head of State for 70 years, of course this is a big, historic moment. She’s been there, steady, all my life. and I believe many of the tributes have been deeply moving and heartfelt. The ceremonies have been beautiful. The events in Scotland and NI (not yet Wales, however?) possess great symbolism about the Union. The crowds queueing patiently in line testify to the public’s affection.
We’ve had a change of Head of State, and a change of PM in 10 days, with the vast majority of us having absolutely no say in this process. I know this is how our constitution works (spare me the lessons, please), but why does it work this way? Why do we accept this unquestioningly?
Why does the coverage of the Queen’s death and the King’s accession assume that we all feel the same reverence; and that everything must come to a halt to pay tribute to this moment? Why are those who feel differently being bullied into silence, or even in a few cases arrested?
Why is it taken for granted that we must all grieve the same way? Why do these stultifying conventions exist that say the royals must parade their grief in public, march a certain way, speak a certain way? I am torn between admiring their stoic poses, and finding it grotesque.
Commentators are droning on endlessly about unity, reconciliation, this being a time to come together in sorrow and respect. Many are opining about our heritage and our history, but also the need to reflect our changing times, our changing world, our multicultural society.
Then I come on Twitter, and find bitter, nasty, vindictive, comments directed at people who dare to question the role of the monarchy, or how events are being conducted, or what they cost; and an outpouring of hatred towards the only non-white member of the royal family.
Tributes to the Queen celebrate her lifetime of service, selfless devotion to the country, and hard work, right to the very end of her life. Meanwhile, our government in its wisdom has facilitated a virtual halt to nearly all aspects of public life, parliament, business, etc.
The juxtaposition between the weary, bloodied soldiers in Ukraine engaged in real fighting for their real freedom, and the pantomime ceremonial military events taking place here are extremely jarring. Where once I loved our pageantry, much of it now seems out of date and OTT.
Part of me still watches the events with fascination and nostalgia. Part of me feels like I am watching a circus, with paid performers and mannequins. “Oh what a circus, oh what a show”.
I don’t want to feel this way. I want to wallow comfortably in sentimental nostalgia for the greatness of our Queen and country. But I find the growing gap between our exceptional sense of ourselves, and the actual reality of our political and economic condition hard to ignore.
I am not instinctively a revolutionary. But the longer these events go on, the more I find myself wanting to push back. While the media is focused almost exclusively on these public events, I worry what the government is up to in private, away from any scrutiny.
I ask, for how long will we remain passive, loyal ‘subjects’? When will we become more active, engaged citizens? How long will we revel complacently in our glorious past? When will we face up, honestly, to our uncertain future? How long will we stay asleep? When will we wake up?