Describing Britain’s unwritten constitution, essayist and historian Walter Bagehot wrote that it consists of two parts: ‘those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population –the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts –those by which it, in fact, works and rules.’
If anyone doubts that the Crown still excites and preserves the reverence of Britain’s population, let them contemplate the line, four miles long, winding over Lambeth Bridge and past the Archbishop’s palace; along the South Bank and its modernist monuments to the start of a new Elizabethan Age; through Southwark and the Borough, and past the whole of the city’s square mile; finally to Tower Bridge, where mourners joining the queue can gaze across the Thames from one stone Tower marking nearly a millennium of the Crown’s continuity, to a great glass tower that reflects the many transformations of a reign lasting seventy years.
On their way to Queen Elizabeth’s lying in state, they will see the dome of St Paul’s, where her Silver, Golden, Diamond and Platinum Jubilees were celebrated, and Westminster Abbey, where she was married, then crowned; and whose doors she will pass through one last time on Monday. When they hear Big Ben ring, it will be in from a clocktower bearing her name, and deep under their feet, trains on the Elizabeth line will rumble by. They will shuffle through a city that everywhere bears her seal.
With apologies to Bagehot, you could also categorise the public response to the Queen’s death (please note: not that contemptible euphemism ‘passing’ which is something you do with stools not souls) into the dignified and the soppy.
The Paddington thing, for instance, has gotten completely out of hand. It is regrettable that before agreeing to do that sketch, the Queen wasn’t visited by some shrouded Ghost of Paddington Future, showing her a hellish vision of unending ranks of soggy Paddingtons lying on their flowery cellophane catafalques outside the Palace gates. The age of soft toy obsequies started with Diana (and seemed a very New Labour way to mourn), and the Queen would probably have detested it.
While Paddingtons and processions drew the eye, gears meshed smoothly with gears in the constitution’s efficient part. Silently and without ceremony, as Elizabeth’s last breath left her body the Crown slid from head to head.
As Charles became King (and Camilla, triumphant, his Queen) his own old titles cascaded down the line of succession. William and Kate struggled for several hours with the mortifying concept of having to sign themselves off as the Cornwall-and-Cambridges, until by simple proclamation (in the course of the King’s address to Parliament) they were made Prince and Princess of Wales.
Appointing William Tywysog Cymru so quickly was the right move by Charles: unlike the Crown, the title of Prince of Wales isn’t automatically inherited by the Sovereign’s heir. From the second the Queen died, Welsh Nats had been trying to get up petitions and cause a great political stink around the appointment, tweeting furiously and inaccurately that Charles is #NotMyKing, despite this being about as effective a protest as standing outside in the pouring rain with a placard saying #NotMyWeather.
Unable to forestall William’s appointment, horribly frustrated Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price took instead to moaning that there should be no investiture of the new Prince, without the ‘consent’ of the people of Wales or a vote in the Senedd. He presumably knows that matters concerning the Crown lie beyond the powers of Senedd Cymru (Article 1 (a) of Schedule 7A to the Government of Wales Act 2006, since you ask), and you don’t really ‘consent’ to having monarchs or princes either.
Mark Drakeford must have been absolutely delighted by this petty display of republican spite. He’s canny enough to know that even a sizeable minority of Plaid supporters are closet monarchists (and when presented with living, breathing Royalty they kneel, toady and fawn with the best of us) and Price’s carping was greeted with widespread disgust. Sorry Adam: you may be the Mab Darogan but you’re no Queen.
Perhaps this is unfair to Adam Price, because (although there were wobbly patches, like 1997) Queen Elizabeth through most of her reign was considerably more popular than any elected politician. Among those not baffled by the depth of public affection, the penultimate of her fifteen Prime Ministers –painfully conscious that he himself isn’t fated to be remembered as ‘Boris the Great’– exorcised his frustrations by projecting that soubriquet onto Elizabeth.
Boris’s ‘Elizabeth the Great’ moniker isn’t going to stick. The reigns of monarchs posthumously dubbed ‘the Great’ –see Peter, Catherine, Herod, Sargon of Akkad etc.– can tend to be associated with bloodthirsty military conquest, and Elizabeth II did not lead her defeated enemies in collars to the gates of Hyde Park. She was no empire builder, but presided over the mostly peaceful dispersal of history’s greatest empire.
But those who saw her Age as one of decline, and the monarchy (as John Osborne had it) as ‘a gold filling in a mouthful of decay’, were far off the mark. While Britain’s place within the world changed beyond recognition, and the nation changed at home, Queen Elizabeth II did not change. For seven decades she was the magnetic core at the centre of the British state: its most efficient public servant, and its most dignified.
Above the soap opera of state and the dramas within her own family, Elizabeth ruled and made the unlikely historic bodge of constitutional monarchy work. In return, she was revered not only by the people standing in today’s miles-long queue, but by the nation, the Commonwealth and the world.
Thank you, your Majesty, and goodbye.
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