In Britain, there has been a whiff of decline in the air for a long time, temporarily masked by the cheap synthetic scent of Boris Johnson’s cheerleader government. But it is now unmistakable. When people used to say the Queen was to be admired because “she does the job so well”, I never quite understood what that meant. As far as I could see, her job was simply to turn up, go through protocols and not go off script. But the truth is that what others saw was a display of confidence, coherence and continuity, when the country she ruled over had little of these. Hers was a sanitising presence against a backdrop of wars, economic crises, Brexit and Covid.
That’s what a good head of state is meant to do, we are told: be there for moral support in times of national emergency, and stay out of it in moments of political upheaval. But the less she said, or the more she didn’t say, the more she enveloped the country in a sleepy, warm embrace of unreality. That is gone now.
There is a reason why, wherever you go in the world or whatever point you visit in history, different peoples who have never been in contact with each other come up with the same concept of a higher force. Whether it is one spiritual god or several animist ones, humans need to impose a sense of logic and higher purpose on their otherwise squalid existence. The near-deification of the Queen intensified as the country pulled further apart. The Queen’s most important role, the one that cemented her as less a human and more a deity, was her softening the blows of loss of empire, of lowered flags, evacuated colonial administrators and defeated troops. She was Britannia, still imperious, not the grey postwar politicians grappling with austerity at home and the loss of Britain’s superpower status abroad. In the royal family’s wealth, pomp and grandeur, enough of a residue of that status, so vital to Britain’s identity, endured. The jewel remained in her crown, if not in the empire.
The more that status frayed, the more the Queen protected the country’s id. In reality, there was no peaceful empire and grateful Commonwealth, that was always a fiction. The sun didn’t set on the empire: occupation was ejected, often in bloody wars. An altogether different account of colonisation began to emerge when the people of the colonies came to Britain with their economic, racial and political legacies of empire. When the countries of the Commonwealth began to remove the Queen as their head of state, when calls to be more honest about the past began to grow louder. And when the royal family began to be talked of as a symbol of the causes of the country’s hardwired inequalities – vast inherited wealth of dubious origin, some of it linked to the slave trade, scraping class deference, bloodline entitlement and unaccountability.
But the more the change in the country’s culture, class structure and economic profile demanded these confrontations with reality, the more the Queen became a refuge. A representation of a fictional time when things were simpler: when it was Shakespeare; Enid Blyton; the spirit of the blitz ; standing alone against fascism; beneficent toffs; a cheeky working class; the welfare state; the swinging 60s; and friendly black and brown faces cleaning the floors and manning the wards. As long as the Queen existed, so did that country.
The reality is that, along with the noble empire, that country never really did exist. And over the Queen’s reign, the nation’s view of itself also became questioned every time its politics spat out a new disfranchised people. Every time a mine was closed, a deprived area rioted against the police, a foreign country was illegally invaded, a benefit was slashed, the “great” country’s narrative was tested. But these challenges never stuck. And having the Queen was always such a comfort, with her smile, her clothes, her brooches and her ritual all frozen in amber, not getting drawn into any of it.
To play this stabilising role, she had to be protected at all costs, for in her resided all the unresolved complexes of the land – nostalgia, a yearning for authority, a need for a fixed point of reference – as Britain hurtled into the unknown with no written constitution and little but its past to define it. Through a combination of muteness and longevity, the Queen serviced these needs. She was a constant presence in the lifespans of almost all of Britain’s population today. Out of familiarity imaginary bonds were formed, a connection uncomplicated by ever finding out anything real about her, strengthened by what felt like an annual personal address to you, and made falsely intimate by fact that the details of her family’s life – births, marriages, divorces and deaths – were, and will continue to be, reported to you with the breathless joy, fuming offence and deep sadness by the press as if these people were your own relatives.
She also became, in a country with still, at heart, quite a conservative hierarchical culture, a sort of justifiably and satisfyingly enforceable red line. This will be especially true in the coming days as she arrives in London from Balmoral to lie in state, and the demands and policing of public mourning will not be so different to those imposed in an absolute monarchy. When it comes to the Queen, you can menacingly be called to heel in a way that feels like it has very little to do with her. We may not have the weird deference for our politicians the way Americans do, but we do love to tell people to cut it out and show some respect when given the chance. When your politicians are liars and you desperately need to believe in your superiors, when your common cultural touchstones are segmented into a million content providers and when your extended families are fractured, people want something to be sacred. People want the certainty and the confidence to scold you and say, yes, everything else in modern Britain may be up for grabs, but not this.
But nothing is sacred. Not the Queen, and not her family, who have in recent years been roiled by accusations, firmly denied, of Prince Andrew’s involvement with an underage victim of sexual trafficking, and of estate investments in questionable funds. And not the country for which she provided not a bridge but an alibi for far too long. That was the job the Queen came to fulfil in her later years: that of a woman who showed up when our public health infrastructure was crumbling, and plugged the gap for an absent government. There is a thin line between boosting morale, and absolving acts of man by treating them as acts of God.
I feel some of you flinch, dear readers. I understand. Some might think it is too soon to speak of imperfection. But with the Queen’s passing, we are about to enter a new chapter where the only hope we have for a more confident, coherent country is to speak of our imperfections more. The Queen is gone, and with her should go our imagined nation. It is time for her to rest. And more than time for the country to wake up.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
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