The Seriousness of Britain: On the passing of the Queen

The Freudian is a latent billionaire, s/he merely needs to figure out how to bill a nation. Look to McKinsey UK  for signs of progressthere is a nation in need of collective analysis. The false-conscious flagellation in the wake of the Queen’s passing is one symptom of a broader pathology. Critiques of the monarchy have long since passed into cliché. Consider the expression of UK comedian the late Sean Lock:

I don’t like the Queen. I think it’s absurd that we have a queen. Basically, what we’re saying is that we’re no more sophisticated than bees. Bees have a queen, and their queen actually does something, lays eggs, and is massive, their queen is about twenty times bigger than them, so you go fair enough you can be queen … our Queen doesn’t even open doors.

Lock is more than facetious: he alludes to a tradition of bee metaphors that stretches back to Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees. The established response is to argue that the Queen does do something; thus, the monarchist is more sophisticated than the bee. And yet to appreciate Britain’s fractious discourse about grief, one must understand that the monarchist is no more sophisticated than the Star Wars fan. Before satirising some of the more absurd outpourings of grief, there are three things to bear in mind. The first is the relation between external entities and self-worth and identity, the second is a tension involving history and causation, the third is a desire to have all the good and none of the bad.

Monarchists, patriots, and Star Wars fans all relate to their respective objects of attachment in a similar way. In each casethe monarchy, the nation’s history, Star Warsthese objects become part of the individual’s identity; their self-worth is entwined with the prestige of the object. Thus, to criticise the object is to criticise the individuala judgement about the monarchy becomes a judgement about a monarchist. A fan of Winston Churchill is in trouble if Winston is a white-supremacist and colonialist; s/he derives pride and worth from this fandom. If Winston is a racist, what does this say about them? By realising that defenders of the Queen are also defending themselves one can better understand the bitterness of the discourse.

But this relation of identity is complicated by the second relation: that of causation. If the Queen has not done anything to have deserved her position, or honoured her duties, then it seems that a fan of the Queen is less sophisticated than bees. To be more sophisticated than bees, the Queen must have done something worthy. This aspect is ineliminable from ongoing debates around patriotism and history. Patriots take pride in and from the history of their nation. But on what rational basis can this occur? Generally, they had no involvement in the hallowed events; often they were not even born; perhaps it was some centuries ago. If one raises a criticism of this nationfor example, it established a brutal colonial empirethe patriot replies, ‘Why should I feel ashamed? I had nothing to do with it’. But why should they feel pride? They had nothing to do with the great moments either. It is absurd, like being proud that someone you don’t know has finished a cryptic crossword without your help before you were born.

Jingoism is a love of an abstraction. A tenuous tissue with the past. Fry and Laurie capture the husk of modern patriotism:

Well, the SAS was originally founded to be a crack, secret, elite, secret, and crack assault force to work behind enemy lines during World War Two. Now our role has changed substantially since that time, now we are here primarily to act as a masturbatory aid for various backbench MPs, yes I’m afraid so it seems a lot of today’s parliamentarians are quite unable to achieve sexual gratification without fantasising about the SAS, so we have to go about the place being crack, secret, and assaulting, and secret, and crack all the time and as elite as possible just so these people can keep their marriages intact.

Patriots wish that their nation’s historic events which are constitutive of their identity are wholly good. They are proud of X but will not admit to Y. British historian Andrew Roberts’s combative appearance on MSNBC offers an instructive example. Roberts attacked the introduction of MSNBC presenter Ali Velshi. Roberts argued that,

If … [the British Empire] has given so much pain to people throughout its history, why was Charles chosen by every single Commonwealth country … as the head of the Commonwealth?

Roberts wasn’t to know that Barbados had cut ties with the Commonwealth, or that Jamaica would consider a similar course of action. Roberts then immediately pivoted to the offensive with an utter non sequitur, exposing a tenuous connection to the notion of seriousness.

We abolished slavery 32 years before you did, and we also didn’t kill 600 thousand people before it was done.

We? Does Roberts think he had anything to do with the abolition of slavery? As writer Eric Williams observed: ‘British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced … slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it’. Unabashed patriots, like Roberts, are probably coy about the fact that Britain compensated slaveholders as part of abolition and that thousands opposed it in any case. Once these citizens take pride in a past they had nothing to do with, they shut their eyes and wash their hands of its disreputable moments. Such patriots frequently give truth to the remark of French historian Ernst Renan that ‘forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation’. Both Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson have written comically inaccurate books, about the Victorian era and Winston Churchill respectively.

Far more knowledgeable writers have written about the Queen and her connection to colonialism and Empire. I can only draw the following analogy. The monarchist must hold that the Queen has done something worthy; if the Queen has done something bad, this reflects badly on the monarchist, thus the Queen has only done good thingscriticisms cannot be countenanced. The logical structure of this relationship is no different to a patriot who crows about Britain’s abolition of the slave trade but will never mention Britain’s major involvement in the establishment and continuation of that trade. Person A derives worth from entity B: if Entity B is not wholly good, this reflects poorly on Person A. This is the third thing to bear in mind. The logical structure of the relationship between a person and the object that is constitutive of their self-worth and identity must only include those things which are good. Criticisms or concerns cannot be countenanced. It’s no wonder that critics are met with fury. Patriots and monarchists are unable to have serious discussions.

Day after day Britain seems to lack a concept of seriousness, to have confused solemnity for seriousness, or lost a sense of the latter all together. Time after time an oft-heard reaction is, ‘Are they serious?’. A complete catalogue would run beyond a hundred volumes. Lyndsey Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, said that the Queen’s funeral was ‘the most important event the world will ever witness’. Evidently, the Bank of England postponed a decision on interest rates; Norwich City Council closed a bicycle rack until after the funeral; the Daily Mail has championed clouds which look like the Queen; football has been postponed, but the posher sport of cricket goes ahead, though fancy dress is not permitted; British Cycling recommended that people cycling on the day of the funeral would do so outside the timings of the service; on the internet, the bereft are selling wristbands from the Queen’s lying in state. Daily Mail columnist and ‘GB News’ presenter Dan Wootton paid his respects outside Buckingham Palace, twicethe first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The video was supplied by Wootton himself, presumably filmed by a friend, and if respondents on twitter can be believed, it took four takes for Wootton to get his ‘quiet reflection’ right, much thought given over to its direction. It is reported he said ‘make sure you get the shot of me praying after I lay the flowers’.

This performativity was precented, in the bleak days of COVID when Britons were urged to clap for nurses and doctors while their government forsook them. Out of respect for the Queen, supermarkets have reduced the volume of beeps on checkout machines; hospital appointments have been cancelled; the Ann Summers online store, capturing the mood, displayed a mural of the Queen above a menu of popular categories like sex toys, lube and erotic clothing; the journalist Michael Crick suggested the Queen should receive a posthumous Oscar for her performance alongside Paddington Bear. This singular performance has instituted a mythical association. They had tea once; now local governments are urging people to stop leaving Marmalade sandwiches and Paddington Bears in memorian. Is this nation serious? The Queen was known for a stoic attitude, not for seeking nation-paralysing attention.

More traditional modes of mourning have also come to the fore. The nation has queued in earnest, unwilling to let pass any opportunity to indulge in a national past time. Spontaneously good Samaritans have appeared, bringing warm food and blankets to sustain the vigil. Pity they cannot do the same for those who are not on the streets out of choice. The national pastime leads to national questions. Many have criticised the queue jumping of This Morning hosts Schofield and Willoughby without a hint of ironythey invoked privilege to pay their respects to the pinnacle of privilege. But what is to be expected from a pair who stood smiling next to a ghoulish wheel of fortune, of which the chief prize was payment of your rapidly rising energy bills. The grotesque tip of a bankrupt media. The passing of the Queen is not an isolated crisis of seriousness, it has exacerbated the existing tensions, brought them to the surface.

The absurdity is before and during; it is likely to be after as well. Witness the outrage at comedian Joe Lycett’s trolling of the BBC News’ flagship fluff-show. What a matter of state! One MP found it necessary to raise the matter with the BBC Director General in a parliamentary committee, and well he did. Lycett’s faux seriousness exposes the solemn humbug of MPs and client journalists. Antics like Lycett’s could put them out of a job and see obligations go unfulfilled. As the cost-of-living crisis spirals, who will platform Tory goons so they can offer advice gleaned from the hard years of the Blitz, a time when many of these tipsters were not yet alive? Who will let Edwina Currie champion the use of foil to increase the power of the radiators? The intellectual values of British television would put France to shame. One contributor on Sky News refuted charges that the monarchy is not very democratic.

The fact of the matter is, it is democratic, you know, until we have a revolution, it’s democratic in the sense that the British public is laissez-faire about changing it.

By this sort of reasoning a totalitarian state is democratic provided its citizens haven’t reached the point of wanting change. This nation is without a principle of close reading. It has misunderstood its Waugh, slumbered through its Pinter, and cracked the spine of its Kafka merely for the sake of appearances.

The dystopian tenor is comic before it is tragic. Is it any wonder that Britain elected Boris Johnson; that appearances on Have I Got News For You paved the way, that Have I Got News For You could unreflexively crow when Boris resigned, seemingly unaware that it platformed other fringe acts into the mainstream, notably Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees Mogg. But Johnson was the platonic form of the Tory-Party conall their particular dissemblers partook of his universal essence. He mastered the timely press release and the undelivered promise. Were he still prime minister, the absurdity of the present moment would surely be beyond comprehension. He is replaced by pale imitation, someone who had to summon all her powers of theatre to say that high levels of cheese imports were a disgrace. This is a culture that doesn’t seem to understand that seriousness is not a facial expression. Seriousness does not reside in the action itself, but in one’s relation to the action.

On Mourn Hub, a BBC presenter remarked that the cost-of-living crisis was now ‘insignificant’; one might have gathered this earlier, from the six weeks of stasis that ensued during the Tory popularity contest. All that time, and for all the time the mourning continues, Britain’s problems are not put on hold. Democracy has suffered since Boris began his prime ministership; it will continue because of anti-democratic legislation. We can see the effects. In Edinburgh, a Scottish man was charged with breaching the peace for calling Prince Andrew a ‘sick old man’; another was charged for holding a sign which read ‘Fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy’; a protester in Parliament Square holding a blank piece of paper was informed that he would be arrested under the Public Order Act if he wrote ‘not my king’ on it; a protester in Edinburgh holding a blank piece of paper was followed home by police who demanded to know where he lived. And yet Nile Gardiner, conservative commentator and one-time aide to Margaret Thatcher, could tweet that on Sunday night Buckingham Palace was ‘the heart of the free world’.

After the Queen is laid to rest, Britain will remain a country without a concept of seriousness. In the main it is not serious about its history, and it is not serious about the monarchy. In Britain, one can only be serious by being solemn. It is fascinating that a nation can be so paralysed by something that it must have expected for so long.

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Josh Abbey

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