I grew up with a proud and handsome father, a miner, who was a staunch patriot and monarchist. Indeed in the front garden of our council house in Leigh, my dad, Alf had erected a flag pole in our well-tended garden, from which he flew a union jack on every appropriate public occasion. I think at times I was a bit embarrassed but not overly so. And I can still visualise the chaotic excitement in our street when Elizabeth was crowned Queen on June 2nd, 1953 – the day before my sixth birthday. I can’t remember much in the way of an organised party. I can remember there was only one ‘telly’ located in a corner house at the top of our avenue, the garden of which was overrun with sweaty bodies, large and small. Was it sweltering? Being a toddler I never got even a glimpse of the BBC’s black and white evidently reverential coverage.
From thence on, through to my early teens. Queen Elizabeth was a taken-for-granted part of daily life – in our house, where coronation memorabilia stood on the mantelpiece; at primary and then grammar school in morning assembly; at church in our prayers; and socially through my father’s leading participation in a number of post-war naval associations, where a toast to the Crown was obligatory.
I’m not sure when my acceptance of this intrusion into my existence began to wane. I wonder if I was getting pissed off with having to wait till after the Queen’s speech before settling down to Xmas dinner. Her measured, patronising voice, symbolising class superiority was proving evermore thin. More than ever I reckon my rejection of her insidious presence was intimately intertwined with my refusal of God’s proferred helping hand.
At some point, when I was about thirteen, the whole edifice of my unthinking obedience to imposed authority began to crumble. Abandoning Christianity and its comforting sense of purpose, its vision of eternal life took some doing. Kicking into touch the absurdity of worshipping a family, who’d landed in the right place, at the right time on the back of theft and murder was pretty easy. In our sixth form Debating Society, I argued passionately for the abolition of the Monarchy…..and in the process perhaps God himself! In retrospect, this was more though than mere youthful rebelliousness. Indeed my burgeoning republican atheism was the hint that I might later become a radical political activist. It meant that I sat grimly, teeth gritted, through the opening National Anthem played ritually at the Halle Orchestra’s concerts, conscious of the burning contempt of Manchester’s petit-bourgeoisie. I took comfort in that most conductors, along with the orchestra, went through the motions. It means even now that I can’t remember [or don’t care to remember] if the anthem was played on the two occasions I represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland against West Germany in the 20 kilometres walk. Did I stand to attention? I’ve no idea. At the time I rationalised that my pride in this achievement had little to do with love of country, much more to do with finding myself part of a team of athletes I respected enormously. Self-delusion, you might well say.
Across the ensuing decades, I spent time in the Marxist-Leninist church with its Holy Texts, prophets, priests and disciples. I learnt a lot but never came to terms with its unrelenting righteousness and deep-seated authoritarianism. Gradually I moved, for the sake of a label, to the Libertarian Left, where anarchism was the dominant voice. The tale of this tortuous journey is for another day. For now, the important thing is that my republican atheism remained constant throughout. Faced with the passing away of the monarch and the passing on of unwarranted and unaccountable privilege to her son I felt angry and frustrated. I asked myself naively, ‘how could such a farce of convenience continue?’ The mass media and a chunk of the population retorted, ‘it continues because we say so’. In a futile gesture, I posted the following on Facebook.
As the sycophancy spews forth from all corners and comers, I call to mind from 1911 the words of James Connolly, the great Irish republican and socialist.
What is monarchy? From whence does it derive its sanction? What has been its gift to humanity? Monarchy is a survival of the tyranny imposed by the hand of greed and treachery upon the human race in the darkest and most ignorant days of our history. It derives its only sanction from the sword of the marauder, and the helplessness of the producer and its gifts to humanity are unknown, save as they can be measured in the pernicious examples of triumphant and shameless iniquities.
Every class in society save royalty, and especially British royalty, has through some of its members contributed something to the elevation of the race. But neither in science, nor in art, nor in literature, nor in exploration, nor in mechanical invention, nor in humanising of laws, nor in any sphere of human activity has a representative of British royalty helped forward the moral, intellectual or material improvement of mankind. But that royal family has opposed every forward move, fought every reform, persecuted every patriot, and intrigued against every good cause. Slandering every friend of the people, it has befriended every oppressor. Eulogised today by misguided clerics, it has been notorious in history for the revolting nature of its crimes. Murder, treachery, adultery, incest, theft, perjury — every crime known to man has been committed by someone or other of the race of monarchs from whom King George [and his offspring – my addition] are proud to trace his [their] descent.
I gain no satisfaction from her death. It is what it is. Another parasite will succeed her. Thousands of people, who have contributed much more to society shuffle off this mortal coil every day, loved and respected by those, who knew them but not adulated by those, who did not.
She deserves no special attention but it is forthcoming in waves. In death, she provides a cloying, nauseous moment of distraction from a reality suffused with uncertainty for the many, within which her celebrity children are no more than pawns in the powerful’s propaganda game.
A number of people have criticised my Facebook post on the grounds that it is disrespectful to the grief-stricken and, even if correct, ill-timed. In one reply I commented:
I respect your opinion but there never is a right time to open up a serious debate about the continued existence of archaic privilege? Those, who are distressed and grieving are not short of support, having the full weight of the media behind them. Indeed to confirm the irrelevance of my tiny voice I’m told that the whole of the UK is in mourning, that the nation is grief-stricken. What to make of my insensitive aberration from the country’s collective compassion?
In a parallel piece, ‘The Queen and her legacy: 21st century Britain has never looked so medieval’, Jonathan Cook concludes.
If the monarch is the narrative glue holding society and empire together, Charles could represent the moment when that project starts to come unstuck.
Which is why the black suits, hushed tones and air of reverence are needed so desperately right now. The establishment are in frantic holding mode as they prepare to begin the difficult task of reinventing Charles and Camilla in the public imagination. Charles must now do the heavy lifting for the establishment that the Queen managed for so long, even as she grew increasingly frail physically.
The outlines of that plan have been visible for a while. Charles will be rechristened the King of the Green New Deal. He will symbolise Britain’s global leadership against the climate crisis.
If the Queen’s job was to rebrand empire as Commonwealth, transmuting the Mau Mau massacre into gold medals for Kenyan long-distance runners, Charles’ job will be to rebrand as a Green Renewal the death march led by transnational corporations.
Which is why now is no time for silence or obedience. Now is precisely the moment – as the mask slips, as the establishment needs time to refortify its claim to deference – to go on the attack.
In tune with this demand that we confront the sanitising legacy of Elizabeth’s reign, Nesrine Malik is eloquence itself in her Opinion piece, ‘Along with the Queen, Britain is laying to rest a sacred national image that never was.’ She ends.
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.
To return to the beginning, what would my gentle father think of this hereditary handover, cut down as he was in his prime back in 1969? I doubt very much whether he would have had time for the Buckingham Palace soap opera, the embarrassing melodramatics. I doubt though he would have cast aside his loyalty. He would have been chuffed to see me in a GB vest. For this much would have been forgiven. Having moved to a terraced house with no garden there would have been no flagpole to proclaim his allegiance. Inevitably we would have rowed occasionally. He might well have despaired at my politics. I’m not certain. I do feel though he might well have agreed that things can’t just carry on regardless. He might well have agreed, “isn’t it time to take a measured breath rather than mourn mindlessly?”