A few days ago Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was treated in hospital for a stomach bug. The story dominated British newspapers and cable news channels to an extent that must have astonished and amused foreign observers in equal measure.
For a 24 hour period, a nation of 60 million people trembled for the health of a single elderly lady.
How bizarre. How quaint we English are, you might think when considering this. But you’d be wrong to, as there’s nothing quaint or unserious about it.
I count myself as a clever enough fellow, as well as someone with a good understanding of the political mechanics of the country in which I live – but I nevertheless struggle to properly foresee an event which cannot be very far away now; the death of our Queen.
The Monarchy is often described as an institution whose primary service is to provide a sense of national continuity. It remains the same, even as the nation around it changes out of all recognition. Our current Queen has overseen the last 60 years of British history, and the transformation of the country from one of cultural homogeneity and order, to one of multiculturalism and discord.
For many of the older generation, the Queen is all that remains of ‘their’ Britain. A country that is now in the misty graveyard of history, but which at the time was so clear and beloved. The England of gentle folk, prudishness, lightly-equipped police officers, strict schools, church on Sunday etc….
London, with all its flashing neon and busy exchange must seem like a foreign country to these people.
When the Queen breathes her last, it will mark more than the passing of a great and noble woman. It will be the closing of a long chapter of national history. This chapter is longer than the reign of the Queen. Homogeneity was a fact of life in Britain for 2000 years. The shift to the multicultural model has been enacted in the space of a few hurried decades.
How will people react to her passing? I dread to think.
First of all there will be a national standstill. Everywhere will close, and the people will come out onto the streets. Mourning, official or unofficial, will go on for weeks before any semblance of normality resurfaces.
Political parties will bend over backwards to pay the greatest respect. Nationalists will weep harder than most. Republicans will not show their faces.
The political atmosphere will be generally explosive. Who can predict what would happen if some idiotic Muslim group picketed a display of mourning with an offensive placard?
Or how Irish nationalists will react, or how the BNP will frame it, or socialists, atheists and other groups ….?
Everything will be in flux.
The thought is terrifying, not quaint. Not quaint at all.