Watching Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on Monday, I found myself experiencing two reactions simultaneously:
As an advocate of republicanism in Britain — i.e., as someone who believes the monarchy should be abolished entirely and replaced by a republic with an elected head of state — I snorted in horror at the vast pomp and circumstance, at the enforced, ritualistic national mourning, at the millions of people lining the streets from London to Windsor to say goodbye to a person many had never met, at the medieval rituals, at the costumes, at the proclamation from the archbishop of Canterbury about how we were all swearing allegiance to the new king, the protector of the faith, member of the Order of Garters, and so on. What on earth does all of that ritual and assertion of hereditary, God-given, privilege have to say to us in a democratic age?
But at the same time, I was also fascinated by the continuity represented by these centuries-old rituals and the glimpse into the past afforded by the pageantry. Those very elaborate scenes that so roused my anti-monarchical ire at the same time also served as bay windows into the vast span of British history. There was something mythical, and mystical, about it; one could, in such an orgy of pomp and circumstance, almost see how the Romans promoted their emperors to God status. The wrap-around media coverage seemingly showed a mortal woman being carefully transferred, through age-old incantations and rituals etched into the crevasses of time, over to the pantheon of the Gods.
Unfortunately, in the Britain of 2022, only the latter of these two reactions would pass muster. Were the anti-monarchist in me let loose on the streets of the U.K., with a bullhorn and a placard, I would risk arrest. Were I to simply seek to get on with my everyday life, I’d instead have to navigate a warren of bizarre exhortations to grief.
Over the past week, dozens of stories have surfaced of the extreme lengths to which institutions and individuals are going to profess their unstinting loyalty to, and grief on behalf of, the royal family.
In an ostentatious show of this grief, food banks have shuttered — which will certainly hurt the hungry, but probably won’t do much to actually make the Queen’s grieving family feel better. Some supermarkets have toned down their checkout beeps, which will clearly make it more difficult for hard of hearing customers to keep track of what they are paying for, but will probably not really contribute to a sense of national healing after the death of the head of state. In a season of massive industrial action, postal workers and train drivers also pushed back their strikes. A number of bicycle racks, where people can park and lock their bikes, have closed for the two-week mourning period, and the organization British Cycle initially told its members they should abstain from bicycling on the day of the funeral, all of which will likely force more cyclists into driving cars instead but, again, probably won’t render whole the shattered psyche of the House of Windsor — unless, for reasons unknown, “The Firm,” as it is colloquially referred to, has a particular animus to two-wheeled modes of transportation.
Sports events have been canceled; theaters have gone dark. Transport for London, which manages the capital city’s bus and underground train network, ordered street musicians to stop singing on transit property until after the funeral, presumably on the dubious assumption that commuters are so all-consumed in grieving that a few loose strains of Beatles or Dylan classics wafting through their local Tube station would terminally discombobulate them.
Other stories include that of a holiday park chain telling guests they would have to vacate their hotel rooms on the day of the funeral. Apparently, according to this line of reasoning, vacation goers having fun would fatally undermine national solidarity.
Even more worryingly than this nonsense, however, has been the law enforcement response. People expressing republican sentiments — either arguing aloud against the monarchy at public events or holding up protest signs protesting the passage of hereditary power from Queen Elizabeth to King Charles — have run afoul of two laws: the Public Order Act of 1986, which allows police to arrest people they deem as using threatening or abusive words, either out loud or on a sign, or talking in a way likely to cause harm or distress to others; and the recently passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which, most controversially, provides for the arrest of people causing “a serious annoyance.” Some of these protesters now face prison terms or fines for their activities.
A heckler who shouted out that Prince Andrew — implicated in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal — was a “sick old man,” was arrested and charged with breaching the peace.
A barrister who wanted to test the limits of free speech journeyed to Westminster and held up a blank piece of cardboard in protest; the police questioned him but didn’t make an arrest. When he asked what they would do if he wrote “Not my king” on the cardboard, he was told he would be arrested.
When a protester in Oxford called out “Who elected him?” when royal heralds came through the ancient university town to proclaim Charles the new king, he was promptly manhandled, handcuffed and thrown in the back of a police van.
In Edinburgh, a man was arrested for holding up a sign reading “Fuck Imperialism. Abolish monarchy.” And the list goes on.
There is an irony to all of this. The reason that so much of the world seems utterly preoccupied by the Queen’s death is that, in life, she did not seem to strive for autocracy and instead was associated in the public’s mind with a Britain characterized by democracy and free speech — the sort of place that could stand proud against the Nazis and their vicious totalitarian vision, or, more recently, offer safe haven to those fleeing Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
How entirely bizarre, therefore, that as Elizabeth II’s body lay in state before she was interred, and as leaders of many of the world’s great democracies journeyed to London to pay tribute to her, the country over which she presided for 70 years indulged in rampant and gratuitous attacks on free speech and peaceful dissent.