The Demise of the Crown

As the Elizabethan Era comes to an end, what sort of country do we want to become?

“The Queen is dead – long live The King!”

…is the traditional cry. Though I’m not going to get into tone-policing. Life’s too short for something like this. Let the media studies researchers get to grips with it at a later date.

For anyone wondering what happens now, the House of Commons Library produced 77 pages of guidance.

The Press Association syndicated the photo below just before The Queen invited Liz Truss to form a new Government.

Above – the late Queen Elizabeth II

Earlier today the Palace released a medical bulletin the likes of which are only ever released if there is a serious problem.

At the same time, the new Prime Minister – the day after her first PMQs – made a very important statement to the Commons on the Energy Crisis. (You can watch it here). It was while the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer was responding to the statement, that people picked up the facial and body language of his deputy leader and shadow chancellor behind him.

Above – just before a note was passed to the Angela Rayner – Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (in the pink/red blazer)

…after which the content of the note clearly agitated Ms Rayner – and also Rachel Reeves the Shadow Chancellor, both of whom are Privy Counsellors (and so will have met The Queen at least once – in order to be sworn into the Privy Council as senior figures the leading opposition party. Now “His Majesty’s Opposition”, the convention is that the official opposition is a government-in-waiting. Hence if a Leader of the Opposition wants to test the opinion of the House regarding confidence in a government, the Government is duty-bound to make time for a Vote of Confidence in the government.

At this point, the Leader of the Opposition was either unaware of what was going on – in full flow, or simply ignored it until the end of his speech. But seasoned watchers picked up very quickly that something significant had happened because his two most senior shadow ministers were continually glancing towards the Speaker’s Chair and were not goading their opposite numbers.

In the end Mr Speaker had to intervene and put an end to the murmurs on the backbenches

By the time the debate wound up with the Former Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband (also a Privy Councillor, and former Labour Party Leader – you can watch his expert contribution here), the Commons had almost emptied.

Four hours later, the Privy Council Office put out a statement for Privy Counsellors about the looming Accession Council.

There will also be arrangements being made up and down the country for the proclamation of the new King – Charles III.

In Cambridgeshire, such has been the change in our administrative systems of governance and our built environment that we won’t have a proclamation at the old Shire Hall – the Assizes Court House got turned into a car park in the 1950s where her predecessors in the 20th Century were proclaimed kings.

So this Sunday at 1pm, and then at 3pm there will be two proclamations for the public. I’ve not seen anything announced yet for the University of Cambridge at Senate House, but the past tells us that heirs acceding the throne were also proclaimed on the steps – noting that Charles was installed as an undergraduate at Cambridge in the late 1960s.

“Quite how I survived being run over by a bus as I cycled right outside [The Fitzwilliam Museum] I don’t know”

The then Prince of Wales at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2016

Which makes for an interesting anecdote given the city is still struggling with traffic problems half a century later – ones debated throughout the day earlier in The Guildhall at the Greater Cambridge Assembly.

“Where were you when The Queen died?”

Where I am now, at home on my laptop still struggling with fatigue. Today was also the day I got official notification from the Department for Work and Pensions of my limited ability to work following my heart attack last December. Anecdotally, both the hospitals I was cared for were opened by The Late Queen. I’m still trying to get the hang of this. Because as even the satirical news site NewsThump posted:

“Even if you don’t really pay attention, figures in public life give a sense of time and place. As established norms and realities fracture and change and become new and different, or are burned in war and rebuilt, a durable figure’s presence acts as a reassurance – a lodestone against which change can be measured and a reassurance that the future need not be uncertain as you fear.”

NewsThump – Goodbye, 08 Sept 2022

And then suddenly she’s gone.

When people talk/write about the ‘shock’, I learnt today that it wasn’t ‘shock from surprise’, but perhaps a state of being uncomfortable/disturbed about having to come to terms with something that was always there no longer being there. Because for many of us irrespective of what you thought of her as a person or an institution, we knew who she was. She represented different things to different people, but we knew she was The Queen.

It is a passing of an era into an uncertain future – just as it was for her great-grandfather Edward VII when Queen Victoria died.

Once the official state mourning, and the state funeral are over, we’ll have to have that national conversation about what sort of country we want to become. And that includes the debate around whether the UK should remain a constitutional monarchy – something campaigners for an elected head of state have been campaigning on for decades. Yet even they have said: “Not today”

Similar sentiments were echoed by those campaigning to separate the Church of England from the institutions of state – such as the Humanists

“And how did you feel?”

In the context of fatigue, just a sense of numbness more than anything else. Knowing that there is now a void and perhaps a period of uncertainty at a time when our institutions of state and civic society are at their weakest – in the face of the biggest challenges humanity has faced certainly in my lifetime, is profoundly destabilising. That for me is what I understand by ‘the shock’.

I’m also mindful of the excessive tone policing of each others’ views

…because I found some hard-hitting articles that had some interesting insights knowing that at the same time people of other opinions would be upset by them. For example this.

Separating the individual from the institution is a very difficult thing to do. What’s been interesting to see is that a number of institutions we might think of as being hostile to the monarchy as an institution have – at a corporate level at least, kept their official announcements focussed on a lifetime inside the goldfish bowl of public life. Something that would have crushed many of us.

I’ve stayed out of the exchanges that have started off along the lines of:

“I know I speak for everyone…[insert pro-monarchy phrase here]”

Or…

“I’m not a monarchist but…”

Or…

“[Insert anti-monarchial phrase here”]

As NewsThump implied, life is too short. I’m walking on by. What others do is their business.

As a historian I cannot avoid the historical context – in particular the sense of the end of an era that we’re lived through.

Chelsea Hart in my opinion reflects this well – not least because that last strong recognised link with the World War II generation and the ones before it, has now gone.

As she says, the changes in the world – from the rapid economic growth of former colonies, the social changes in the UK calling for a reappraisal of our histories not just in the face of changing societal values but also in technologies that enable far more efficient research (such as the digitisation of over 50 million newspaper pages with keyword searches in the British Newspaper Archive) means that it is much easier to find out who was contesting official or popular historical narratives of past events/incidents/achievements/atrocities at the time they took place.

The world that the Late Queen inherited was very well dramatised in The Crown in this exchange between a young Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, and her grandmother Queen Mary the Queen Dowager – widow of George V, the Queen’s Grandfather.

Above – my takeaway from this scene is the overpowering concept of ‘duty to an institution’ – even if it is to the detriment of your own interest as a human being. As a child who had to go to church every Sunday, and being a cub scout as a child, I became very familiar at a young age with the rituals of ‘saluting the flag’ at the start and end of every weekly meeting of the latter, and of repeating the oath of ‘doing my duty to God and to The Queen’. Those routines and rituals seem so far removed from the values I learnt after I left Cambridge to go to university at the end of the 1990s, and the life I have led since.

Above – a young Princess Elizabeth sits between her grandparents King George V and Queen Mary

That historical context is that Queen Mary was Queen Consort when Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany and Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia. George V was first cousin of the former through his father, and first cousin to the latter through his mother.

Note the Queen Mary dramatised above is the same Queen Mary who was a regular visitor to Cambridge (due to her favourite antique shop being here, and a fast dash from Sandringham) – pictured here on a private visit to the Cambridge and County Folk Museum – now the Museum of Cambridge, not long after it opened in the late 1930s.

Above – from the Cambridge Daily News in the Cambridgeshire Collection, dated 18 Aug 1938

“So, what happens now?”

We’ll have an Accession Council to proclaim the Prince of Wales as King Charles III, there’ll be a couple of weeks mourning, then a state funeral, then it’s party conference season!

In terms of what sort of monarch the new King will be like, that remains to be seen – in particular his working relationships with ministers. His views on things like the environment are well known – which given the new ministerial announcements a few days ago could lead to some clashes which, if not managed could cause constitutional issues.

In one of his last public speeches as Prince of Wales, he made this speech during the July 2022 heatwave.

You only have to browse through the list of videos that come back in a search for Prince Charles Climate Crisis in Youtube to get a sense of the tense discussions that will inevitably take place between ministers and the new King. The 1993 episode To Play The King in House of Cards feels incredibly prophetic given where we are today – and is well worth watching online.

I’ll end it here with this photograph of Queen Elizabeth II being introduced to the Mayor of Cambridge Cllr Gerri Bird at the opening of the NIAB Institute in Cambridge on 19 July 2019 by Keith Heppell for the Cambridge Independent.

Above – Keith Heppell’s photograph of the Late Queen Elizabeth II escorted by the Lord Lieutenant Julie Spence (also Chair of the CPFT, so she chairs some of the meetings I attend as a CPFT Governor), meeting the Mayor of Cambridge Cllr Gerri Bird in full civic regalia.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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