Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with their children Princess Anne, Prince Charles (right) and Prince Andrew on his first holiday to Balmoral. 8th September 1960. (Photo by NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Britain’s last grown-up

A year after Queen Elizabeth’s death, Britain remains Peter Pan land

Artillery Row

One year ago the country witnessed the passing of its queen. I felt then, an overwhelming sense of some shield or talisman withdrawn; Britain would not now be the same, and things would go badly. Beneath all our rationalisations, technological might and imperious calculations, modern society is comprised not of modern men, but of humans of the same essential substance as dwelt in Medieval Florence or Ancient Babylon. Once in a while an event falls upon contemporary society that shatters our pretensions, and throws us back on more basic and natural modes of thinking. The death of a monarch is such a moment, an occurrence that, in myth and folklore, is a kind of cosmic shift, the turning of time and history into a new path. Britain, for all that its masters wish it to be shorn of such ideas, always, it seems, returns to this primordial poetics — “let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings”. 

Britain today is not only an old country, it is, sadly, a bitter one

The coronation earlier this year was a strange moment. On the one hand it was triumphantly successful. A tradition now so alien to modern political thought, it has become timeless and eternal, unthinkable to invent, but, extraordinarily, everything still works. Britain could still produce that scene of baroque splendour, the upraised voices lifted in praise of God, the King, kneeling like a knight of old, before the altar, the great clashing procession of martial might. Pride in our traditions and history was still alive, the nation could still hush its voice in the presence of sanctity. And could forever more, if it only chose to.

The tragedy of change is not always its inevitability, but lies, sometimes, precisely in its contingency. Traditions that have lasted a thousand years could quite happily last another thousand, there is no inevitability to most of the blows of history — they are delivered by human hands. We would not desire that every facet of our nation and culture, even those possessed of great glamour or dignity, should be frozen in place forever, forestalling all freshness and new life. But some golden thread of continuity, an unbroken chain of thought, feeling and symbol, is precisely what sustains a civilisation, making it capable of collective struggle and endeavour, of innovation and dynamism, creativity and expression. 

As I saw King Charles, his face suffused with quiet passion, he seemed impossibly frail, at 73 the oldest monarch ever to be crowned in Westminster Abbey. It was not only his age, but the nation he ruled, which added to this sense of fragility. In 1953, when the Queen was crowned, Britain embraced the coronation with unapologetic and uncomplicated enthusiasm. A gilded Tudor pageant, with the peers of the realm taking up crown and ermine, all the romantic blush of Rossetti, Keats and Tennyson glowed from the event. A young woman was crowned queen of a young nation. In this England, gangs of children still haunted road and hedgerow, parks swarmed with young lovers, and the hunger for the new was equal to the adoration of the old. 

The Queen, as long as she lived, somehow grounded us in that kind of old selflessness

Britain today is not only an old country, it is, sadly, a bitter one. Fashionable opinion may despise the past — but it equally disdains the future, with grim environmental predictions, and a positive embrace of childlessness. Only the cultures of other nations are truly celebrated, and then only as imagined victims of Britain and the West, not as objects of true inspiration or cultural exchange. “Conservative” opinion is no better; the mindless complacency of a wealthy class of rentiers focused on their own pleasure, who see nothing wrong in the growing gulf between rich and poor, the collapse of the hopes of the young, and the mountainous burden of debt imposed on those who seek education and housing. 

Whereas the Queen’s coronation felt like an extension of the politics and culture in which the ceremony occurred, the King’s felt like something that had descended unheralded from the clouds. Britain’s Conservative government has officially defined “British values” as “Democracy, Rule of Law, Respect and Tolerance, and Individual Liberty”. Which of these was demonstrated in the coronation of our King? The rule of law, perhaps, but scarcely the others, anodyne as they are.  

Other British values — piety, humility, a sense of dignity and grace, a respect for just authority, a pride in our independence and a sense of exceptionalism, a love of ritual and display, a reverence for things old, strange and venerable — are not listed on school curriculums or government statements. But they are still deeply felt, and it is these values which furnish the monarchy with its continued popularity and support. 

I fear for these values, so fragilely embodied in a shrinking circle of institutions. They are all ideas and sentiments which decentre the self, sacred impulses that put aside individual will in order to take joy in things larger than we are. The Queen, as long as she lived, somehow grounded us in that kind of old selflessness. Like visitors to a kindly but old-fashioned grandmother in an immaculately kept home, we found ourselves falling into older standards of speech and behaviour, and acquiring a kind of peaceful and pleasant dignity in return. 

So much of Britain has been like that — we lean on institutions and ideas without embracing them. At a subtle level the pleasantness, ease and civility of ordinary secular life rested on the existence of parish churches, the Women’s Institute, scout troops, the military, and the monarchy (you can almost feel a sneer forming at this twee world — but could you bear for it not to exist?). We did not ourselves want to be bound by Victorian values, but assumed that someone, somewhere was, on all our behalves. Britain has now exhausted its supply of nice country vicars, old colonels, maiden aunts and village worthies. 

What are we waiting for? Nobody knows

Does this sound ridiculous and infantile — it should, and so have we been. National psychology is often an even sillier business than individual psychology, but I was struck, thunderbolt style, by the truth of Aris Roussinos’ observation that Britain is quite simply depressed. I’ll add one more element to the diagnosis — arrested development. The Britain that was young in the early days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign has failed to grow up. The older generation, well represented by Boris Johnson, has in some fundamental way refused to become their parents and grandparents, living out some kind of eternal benighted adolescence, at the expense of all subsequent generations. Britain as a whole has the quality of a house lived in by teenage children, waiting for the parents to come home. They’re vaguely aware they should tidy up, answer the phone, and pay the bills, but are hoping mummy and daddy will sort it all out when they get back. 

Crumbling schools fall apart, sewage pours into the rivers and seas, trains grind to a halt, criminals grow bolder, courtesy withers, rudeness and anti-social behaviour become the norm, energy runs out, housing goes unbuilt. And still we do nothing. What are we waiting for? Nobody knows. Standing up and taking responsibility is a doubly unpleasant prospect for a nation whose elites are wedded to everlasting adolescent individualism. Not only must one cease thinking of your own life and body as instruments of self-pleasure, but you must inflict this awakening on myriad others. Not only must you accept the mortification yourself, like some queer new hobby, you are obligated to impose it generally; we must expect more of ourselves, and the world. 

It was easy to take comfort in the Queen, and what she represented — the idea of some higher heaven, some world of adults such as one would never be oneself, of cool archons who secure the foundations of our existence. It’s much harder to realise that we, confused, bumbling, soft-hearted mortals, silly post-modern Brits, are those who must now embrace the despised and chilly virtues of duty, honour, and Chrisitan self-sacrifice. But embrace them we must — or lose everything we know and love.

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