Marking the evolution of the British state has long been planned as part of the great festival of mourning now under way; but into what precisely is far from clear. The new King’s hectic tour of Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff punishingly close to his mother’s death,can only be seen as a conscious act to uphold the Union by popular consent. The accident of the Queen’s death at Balmoral allowed for the staging of powerfully affecting ceremonies in the matchless theatre of old Edinburgh, compatible – just – with Charles King of Scots in a independent state, and was comfortably endorsed by Nicola Sturgeon.
Critics of the perniciousness of hereditary monarchy and the fantasy of the Commonwealth can only be refuted by the evidence of their own eyes. For where would the monarchy be without the crowds and the sweeping reaction to the Queen’s death throughout the world?
The mediaeval progress and rituals so deliberately designed to create the image of solidity and confidence may even quash some doubts about the reality. You can over speculate about these things. In the original white realms, leaders who are sympathisers of a republic one day fell over themselves to say “not yet.” The most affecting tribute was paid by Justin Trudeau who knew her from childhood as a previous Canadian prime minister’s son. With a catch in his voice he declared: “she was one of my favourite people; I will miss her so.”
The King’s call on Northern Ireland followed a well trodden path. Royalty mixed with reconciliation. The eerie role reversal of Sinn Fein and the DUP as upholders of constitutional behaviour seemed almost natural. The Sinn Fein Speaker by default Alex Maskey struck all the right notes, leaving the DUP looking ever more ridiculous. In St Anne’s Cathedral, Michael D didn’t fumble it this time and graced a royal inauguration with his presence. Irishness in different forms was present, the Royal Irish Regiment’s crest of Harp surmounted by Crown displayed feet away from the Irish President’s nose, the words of dedication in Irish by the best Church of Ireland primate in decades, the poetic Irish blessing delivered in turn by each church leader. King and President missed a trick by not processing out together, followed by the two prime ministers.
Channel 4 News brought us back to earth as it reviewed of the whole reign. Queen Elizabeth’s early visits were bound to endorse the old unionist regime. There was one kerfuffle in 1966 when the new bridge across the Lagan she opened was finally renamed after her rather than the provocative “Carson” as the city council first proposed. John Hume condemned the prospect of her golden jubilee visit in 1977 as” doing nothing to help reconciliation”. She came late to reconciliation because reconciliation itself came late. The impact of the Dublin visit and the McGuinness handshake was grudgingly acknowledged by John Taylor as “unpleasant but understood”. After the GFA Peter Robinson said many unionists looked out for another royal visit to provide cover for the latest UK government “betrayal.” The reporter Gary Gibbon asked a former IRA prisoner Tommy Kearney if the peace process would not have been harmed if the IRA had assassinated her: Kearney shrugged. “Charles or somebody would have carried on. “ (The question at this moment was more remarkable than the answer).
In the wider world the question for the Caribbean and south Pacific realms is not why they are abandoning the monarchy but why have they waited so long? They all gained independence thirty years ago. The Crown was retained in most realms even India for at least a short time to allow new parliamentary constitutions to settle down and to prevent a single election winner from turning himself into a despot – which in the end happened all too often by mixing a culture of rival tribal nationhood uneasily with democracy.
In a powerful Guardian piece Afua Hirsch wrote about the Queen’s death in the midst of the struggle to make sense of the Empire
This will be remembered as a watershed moment in British history for two reasons. First, for the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Second, for what happened next: the voices of those colonised in the name of the British crown being heard, not as a fringe, exceptional view, but as a clamouring chorus of global trauma.
Is “global trauma” over slavery really how racism is now experienced? Every nation affected joined the Commonwealth and none has voluntarily left. Slavery was abolished by the UK in 1835, thirty years before the US when it costs 600, 000 lives in the Civil War. Formal segregation far worse than anything in Britain persisted in southern states for another century. But colonised indeed they long remained and “minoritised” too, a new term to me, which must refer to the racism that endures. But categorising like this can exaggerate contemporary victimhood and even jeopardise the principled demand for equality. It may frustrate rather than promote real empowerment. by asking for “full reparation and apology” for a past from those who bear no personal responsibility for it. Nowadays we are all on the same journey, faltering at times indeed and with much to do, but unstoppable all the same.
Beyond doubt the long obsequies for the late Queen are proving to be inspiring for millions who think of the state as resembling a big family.
There is however a risk the state funeral in Westminster Abbey attended by scores of world leaders may go to the heads of many on the Conservative right who dominate this new government more than ever. If so it will make their hangover all the more severe when they wake up on Tuesday morning.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London