The Funeral of the Queen Mother

Whatever one thinks of the monarchy as an institution or the royal family as people, the Queen Mother’s death is obviously a sad occasion: she lived through a whole turbulent century, preserved a dignity and charm that don’t seem to come easily to the younger members of the Firm (apart from the Queen and, arguably, Prince Philip), continued to carry out public duties to the very end long after lesser mortals would have retreated into grateful retirement, and – partly by refraining from speech-making and giving interviews, partly because of her down-to-earth interests in horse-racing, gin and large overdrafts – inspired genuine affection among a wide cross-section of the population. But there is more than one way to interpret the massive turnout of people queuing for up to ten hours to file past her coffin in Westminster Hall, standing on a chilly morning outside Westminster Abbey to listen to (and participate in) her funeral service and lining the route of her final journey from the Abbey to Windsor, her final resting-place. Of course many, including tourists, were simply drawn to a great spectacle and a historic event taking place during and just after a holiday weekend, lavishly (indeed excessively) covered for days on end by the media: somewhere to take the children, and to tell the grandchildren that "I was there". Others also certainly went out of respect and affection for a splendid old lady, still admired, especially by the older generation, for staying in England throughout the bombs and rockets of world war two. But the unexpectedly large scale of the popular turnout has been attributed by many media commentators to more than any of these things: as evidence that the monarchy and the royal family are still hugely popular, despite the mocking and sniping of a small minority of effete republicans, and that the royals needn’t be so defensive about their roles and their future. I wonder if this is true. After Princess Diana’s death and the tide of emotion which that had evoked, the Economist magazine, no nest of lefties, warned that the only remaining member of the royal family who attracted real affection and admiration (as distinct from the Queen, who perhaps evokes respect and admiration rather than love) was now the Queen Mother, who in the nature of things was not going to live for ever: and that the Queen Mother’s demise would leave the royal family dangerously short of anyone with the iconic status enjoyed by both Diana and the Queen Mother. Possible candidates for the role certainly include Prince William and perhaps even Camilla: but neither quite seems to fit the bill, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that the royals have finally lost their chief remaining asset.

However, love and affection are by no means the normal or traditional attitudes of the British towards their royal family, and we can be sure that – barring some personal or national catastrophe – they will be with us for a few generations yet. A columnist in the Guardian of the day of the funeral asserted that the "only one really good argument against abolishing the monarchy is that doing so might be more trouble than it was worth… there will always be more important things to worry about". This is an obviously absurd proposition. On any rational calculation, the one really good argument against abolishing the monarchy is that a substantial majority of the population want to keep it. But it’s true that if ever an overwhelming majority came to favour abolition, the task of disentangling the monarchy from our constitution, society, procedures, ceremonials, armed forces, government services and national psychology would be immensely difficult. One of the most tricky elements would be the need to define, codify and re-assign a whole raft of unwritten doctrines and conventions revolving around the monarchy and the royal prerogative – including not least the remaining personal powers of the sovereign in regard to the appointment of a prime minister and the granting or refusal of a dissolution of parliament, and the circumstances in which those powers may properly be exercised – on which there is at present no consensus among the constitutional lawyers and experts, not to mention the problem of identifying someone else who could safely be entrusted with these powers in the monarch’s place. Another headache would be managing abolition with the 15 or so other Realms of which the British monarch is also head of state. But all this, if it ever arises at all, is a long way into the future. I doubt if even my grandchildren need to lie awake at night worrying about it (especially as they are both Americans).