Had I been a foreign correspondent reporting from London over the past week, this is the dispatch that I would have sent back to my editors after what has been a telling episode in the life of this country:
After an uneasy and rebellious two decades, the British and their Royal Family have been reconciled, if only temporarily, in an extraordinary show of national and social solidarity. People from all over the country defied the predictions of London's sophisticates to flock in their hundreds of thousands to Westminster, queuing for many hours to pay their last respects to the Queen Mother, who died on 30 March, at the age of 101.
Many came as families, several generations together. Some wanted their children to witness a moment in history. Others recalled what they felt were their, and the monarchy's, glory days during the Second World War. Most were not grieving, but making their contribution to a collective national occasion as best they knew how. Here was the rare spectacle of the British feeling good about themselves, in the most understated, old world, kind of way.
And while the people played their part, so did the Palace. In concession after discreet concession, the House of Windsor fed the popular appetite for bread and circuses with all the tricks of the contemporary public relations industry. For a spectre hovered over this feast of a pageant: the ghost of "Princess Di".
In the acres and hours of British media coverage that followed the Queen Mother's death, no one's taste lapsed so far as to draw direct comparisons between the aftermath of the latest royal death and the outpourings of very un-British sentiment that accompanied the Princess of Wales to her grave. Yet there was new evidence each day that showed how much the Palace had learned from the public relations débâcle of five years before – starting with the recognition that the Queen of England could no longer take the support of the people for granted.
An early controversy that erupted after Diana died was what "the people" felt was the unseemly flying of the Royal Standard over Buckingham Palace when flags elsewhere flew at half-mast, even though – with the sovereign in residence – this was technically correct. This time around, the compromise – the flying of the Union Jack over Buckingham Palace at half-mast – was adopted as soon as the Queen Mother's death was announced.
Princess Anne, who takes over from the Queen Mother the role of most senior female royal after the Queen, broke with tradition more demonstratively. Not only did she walk behind her grandmother's coffin with the men, but she wore trousers as part of her military uniform. The Palace could hardly have signalled more clearly that it wanted to start moving with the times.
The Royals' stiff upper lip, so witheringly condemned by "the people" after the death of Diana, was another anachronism that has been addressed. Each day, the Palace has carefully tempered the ceremonial with a show of personal emotion. An almost tearful Prince of Wales went on ITV to express, very un-Charles-like, his grief at the loss of his grandmother. On the day the coffin was borne to Westminster Hall, the Palace made public the inscription on the Queen's wreath: "In loving memory, Lilibet." A pre-Diana monarch would have seen the publication of so personal a message as intrusion.
Condemned for their aloofness during the obsequies for Diana, members of the Royal Family have been out almost every day since the Queen Mother's death, mixing it with "the people" and expressing appreciation. The Palace issued an early statement of gratitude in the name of the Queen; she broadcast her own thanks to the nation on the eve of the funeral.
The Palace took nothing, but nothing for granted. Early preparations to invite "the people" were efficient, but low-key. Many Londoners scoffed at the extent of crowd barriers, the expanse of lawn cordoned off for flowers from "the people", the dozens and dozens of portable toilets towed on to the Embankment in anticipation of crowds. The Palace said nothing. Once the real spectacle began, though, with Friday's funeral procession, it turned out that the Palace had been right, and London had been wrong.
Security, where visible, was enforced with common-sense flexibility. The hours of public access to Westminster Hall were extended almost around the clock. The "no cameras"rule for the lying in state was soon lifted. "The people" wanted a record of their presence, something to pass on to their children. The funeral service will be broadcast, as Diana's was, outside the Abbey and down the Mall. "The people" will not be shut out.
The response was the crowd's spontaneous – Diana-style – applause as the Queen was driven back from the lying in state last week. Today, it will surely be louder and less hesitant.
None of this means the Crown has done more than extend its lease on power. But if the past week is any gauge, when the time comes for the British and their monarchy to part, the monarchy will give itself a terrific send-off, and the people will send it quietly, decorously – and tearlessly – on its way.Reuse content