When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the mother of Britain’s current head of state, died in 2002 the public reaction was not completely to the liking of the monarchists.
Some complained that all scheduled TV programmes were not cancelled, that a newscaster did not wear a black tie and that the 101 year-old deceased was described as an “old woman”.
However, the British Broadcasting Corporation was characteristically deferential and the amount of coverage was widely seen as excessive. The death was treated as more important than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with the increasing number of civilian deaths it entailed.
The BBC still chose to serve the monarchy rather than the people. But it recognised that more Britons than ever before would rather watch their favourite TV programme than mourn for a dead Windsor.
Thai diplomat curtsies to queen Windsor
Despite that the British state had not given up on its efforts to enforce deference towards the feudal institution. When William Windsor married in 2011 the police were brought in to ensure that few signs of disrespect for feudal privilege were visible on the wedding day.
Some republicans were put in preventative detention. And in February 2017 the British Supreme Court found that such preventative detention, without charge and without being brought before a court, for as long as 5 ½ hours, on the grounds that a “breach of the peace” might happen if they were released, had been lawful.
The next major event for the British monarchy is likely to be the death of queen Windsor and her replacement by her eccentric son. It is to be expected that the state will use these events to shore up the institutions of feudal privilege.
In a long article in the Guardian journalist Sam Knight has done us a service by detailing the plans of the monarchist state to mark the passing of its monarch.
But Mr Knight seems himself to be a little bewitched by the snake oil of monarchy. He writes that “The bond between sovereign and subjects is a strange and mostly unknowable thing. A nation’s life becomes a person’s, and then the string must break”.
It is remarkable that a writer in the Guardian seems not to be offended by the idea that he and his follow citizens are “subjects”. And this semi-mystical hocus pocus ignores the reality that very many citizens feel no “bond” with the feudal head of state imposed on them rather than chosen democratically. Nor do they feel that the lives they lead are connected in any way to that person or what she represents.
Knight also suggests that citizens will contemplate the “unthinkable oddness of Windsor’s absence.” One “former courtier” told Knight that the death of the queen “will be quite fundamental”.
To someone who thinks of themself as a “courtier” that may be so. But it is obvious that a death in a family that many follow as no more than celebrities will make no difference to the way the majority live their lives.
“People will look for auguries” for Charlie’s reign in the weather and in birds Knight claims and who can doubt that monarchists are capable of such foolishness.
Knight also claims that “There will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind”. By this he seems to mean that the the death of Windsor will be emblematic of a national decline during her term of office, though most Britons who were alive when she took office will know that life has improved greatly since 1952, though no thanks are due to her.
A Gram of Coke
Nonetheless Mr Knight provides some fascinating details of the monarchist plans to use the death of one Windsor and her replacement by another to reinforce the family’s hold on feudal wealth and privilege.
According to Knight George “the fifth” Windsor was injected with “750mg of morphine and a gram of cocaine – enough to kill him twice over – in order to ease the monarch’s suffering, and to have him expire in time for the printing presses of the Times, which rolled at midnight”.
Despite the power that Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of the Times, holds in the kingdom it is unlikely departure of the current queen will be hastened in the same way. But the monarchists will try to control the story.
They intend, or did until Mr Knight’s report, to use the phrase “London Bridge is down” to communicate news of the death secretly to an elite that will put black armbands 3.25 inches wide on their left arms before the death is disclosed to those the monarchists think of as “subjects”.
Here are some of the things we can expect from the monarchist establishment as it tries to persuade us that the death of its head is a story that is “so much more important than others” and a “national catastrophe” .
- The Winsor Web site will have a single page with an announcement of the death.
- The Times newspaper will for 11 days publish articles it has already prepared for its readers.
- Independent music radio stations will be expected to play “inoffensive” music.
- They keep lists of “Mood 2” sad and “Mood 1” saddest music.
- TV programmes will stop, networks will merge, the Windsor flag will appear on TV screens, and the royal anthem will be played.
- Listeners to BBC radio stations will hear a message beginning “This is the BBC from London” as if the nation has gone to war.
- TV newsreaders will wear black suits and ties according to Knight, which will make for some interesting female attire.
- BBC broadcasts will be “bowdlerised”, with some comedy allowed but no satire.
- “People will go home from work early”.
- Buses will stop running during the funeral. It is not clear whether this will apply to trains, Uber, ferries and other means of transport. Presumably citizens will be allowed to drive their cars and walk..
- East coast train services will be disrupted to allow the body to be brought from Edinburgh to London on the Windsors’ train if she dies in Scotland.
- If Windsor dies during the “royal” horse racing event at the Ascot racecourse in June the horses will not race.
- The National Theatre in London will close but only if the death is announced before 4pm.
- Rugby and hockey matches may be cancelled but soccer matches may go ahead.
- No golf will be allowed in royal parks.
- British airline pilots will announce the death, another reason for not flying BA.
- Parliament will meet but, of course, will as usual be allowed no say on the business of monarchy. MPs will swear their loyalty to Charlie Windsor.
- Charlie Windsor will tour the country to begin “assuming his almighty role in the public imagination”, which if it were true would be an almighty task for the man who has been called “the wacky pommy prince” and “an unlikeable nutjob”.
- Windsor will swear to protect the Church in Scotland (it is not clear how that will work if Scotland has left the kingdom by that time) and will speak of the heavy burden he bears as his manservant puts the toothpaste on his toothbrush. He will indeed be losing the income from the Duchy of Cornwall, which will be only partly replaced by that from the Duchy of Lancaster.
- Shops will be closed or reduce their opening hours.
- The London Stock Exchange will be shut.
All of this, it seems, will be to mourn a person of limited abilities who was not chosen by the people and is not representative of them. For a person who has contributed nothing of great value to the people of this country while accumulating great wealth for her own family.
But Knight explains the thinking behind this. “It is”, he writes, “an opportunity for order to be affirmed”. “The cumulative effect will be conservative” he adds. One “constitutional thinker” told him the occasion would “intensify the feeling that there is nothing to learn from foreigners”.
Shit and Soil
It must be acknowledged that Mr Knight does recognise some of the realities of Windsor-worship.
The initials of the BBC system for alerting staff to the death are RATS. This is sometimes referred to as “royal about to snuff it”.
He reminds us that the royal spectacles used to reinforce the hold of monarchy are recent inventions, not deeply-rooted traditions.
“At the funeral of Princess Charlotte in 1817” Knight writes, “the undertakers were drunk. Ten years later, St George’s Chapel was so cold during the burial of the Duke of York that George Canning, the foreign secretary, contracted rheumatic fever and the bishop of London died. ‘We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons,’ reported the Times on the funeral of George IV, in 1830. Victoria’s coronation a few years later was nothing to write home about. The clergy got lost in the words; the singing was awful; and the royal jewellers made the coronation ring for the wrong finger”.
This time there will be an elaborately choreographed funeral and inauguration. TV directors have a two-inch thick book of instructions. But broadcasters are afraid that the gravity the monarchists want will be undercut by the reality represented by scenes of gawpers taking selfies on funeral day
Knight also writes that “After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. ‘Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?’ one 60-year old woman asked. ‘It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.’ In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, ‘He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,’ which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox”.
The public reaction to the death of Windsor’s mother was not as deferential as the monarchists wanted. There may be more regard for her daughter but just how many feel themselves to be “subjects” with a bond to a person who took mountains of their money but gave little in return is still be be seen.
As an historian told Knight, there is a worry that the monarchists with their ceremonies will be seen as “just like circus animals”.