Queen Elizabeth II at Princess Diana's funeral (Photo by © Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Queen contra modernity

Why we should keep her values alive

A consensus in the British media quickly gathered in early September 1997 following the death of Princess Diana. The Queen wasn’t displaying her grief with sufficient gusto. Her initial insistence on sticking to protocol and not abandoning all shreds of privacy and dignity — not immediately leaving Balmoral, not agreeing to fly the flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, not parading William and Harry in front of a million cameras — was viciously attacked in the tabloid press. “Show Us You Care!” came the cry from the Daily Express

It’s easy to forget now — and much brushed under the carpet in recent years, as the Queen gradually returned to immense, almost unassailable popularity — but the public anger towards the Queen at the time was intense and widespread. There were fears that the Queen, on her return to London, would be publicly booed when she stepped out of her car. The country resented that their sovereign would not join them in an orgy of emotional hysteria.

It was alleged at the time — and it has the clear ring of truth to it — that the Queen wanted a private, quiet funeral, respectful of the privacy of the two little boys at the centre of the tragedy. Prince Phillip, reacting to suggestions from Blair’s 10 Downing Street that William and Harry should walk in the funeral cortege, reportedly responded in tones of understandable anger, “They’ve just lost their mother. You’re talking about them as if they are commodities.” He was surely expressing his wife’s view too.

The public, and Tony Blair, got their wish. William and Harry — who were 15 and 12 years old respectively — were paraded in front of the world to satisfy the public’s desire to make a morbid national spectacle of grief out of their suffering. The funeral service bore all the hallmarks of a pop concert or Disney tear-jerker as much as it did a solemn ceremony of mourning, with Elton John performing “Candle in the Wind” mid-service. It was a PR sensation typical of the new era of spin doctors.

The years have surely vindicated the Queen’s instincts. It now seems almost incredible that those bereaved children were treated like publicity props. Harry later said, “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances … No child should lose their mother at such a young age and then have his grief observed by thousands of people.” It is hard to disagree with that sentiment. 

We have become a society of precious, whining narcissists

There has been much talk since the Queen’s death — and indeed during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations — about how the Queen embodied certain admirable, old-fashioned ideals: commitment to duty, stoicism, discretion and so forth. Underlying many of these (entirely correct) statements is an undertone of regret that such sterling qualities are in such short supply now. She stood out in such sharp relief because the background of our culture and society has become so clearly marked by the opposite qualities. Exhibitionism. Emotional incontinence. The elevation of outward appearances and tacky self-promotion over substance, character and service. Flakiness, fragility and self-pity. We have become a society of precious, whining narcissists talking at and past each other, all whilst congratulating ourselves on our “openness” and being so pleased at how “modern” we are.

That by and large is what most people have wanted, or at least it’s a culture they have acquiesced in and often enthusiastically embraced. The death of Diana gave many people an excuse for openly parading just those values. A profound cultural shift was taking place. It found its symbolic apotheosis and triumph in those days of September 1997, and in the cheap emotionalism that Tony Blair proved himself so fluent in when he reacted to her death with his “People’s Princess” speech. The Queen stood against them, and the majority of the public hated her for it.

I don’t wish to comment on the character of Diana — no doubt in many ways she was a kindly woman with good motivations. But a sort of caricature of the worst elements that could be extracted from her life, or perhaps more accurately her public image — making a spectacle of oneself, ostentatious virtue-signalling, a lack of emotional self-control — has become the model for our culture for 25 years now. One reason why the death of the Queen is so painful and seems to herald such uncertain and disquieting times is because, in our heart of hearts, we’ve all become sick of it. We saw in the Queen one last outpost of the old values that most of us endorse but struggle to emulate because they are counter-cultural and unpopular and difficult to stick to. We embraced a Diana culture whilst deep down we knew that the Elizabeth morality we were leaving behind was superior.

Here are a few phenomena we’re probably all familiar with: The dead look behind the eyes of the Instagram influencer as they parade the latest shiny, fake incarnation of their carefully crafted “personal brand”. The hollow ring of the LinkedIn drone as they post their latest screed on wellbeing or diversity, or how they manage their “executive schedule”. The grotesque voyeurism of the Reality TV show peopled by walking advertisements for brands of fake tan who demean themselves by participating in a series of staged emotional “dramas” and tawdry public sexual acts in order to kickstart a 15 minute career as a professional strumpet. The blue-haired Twitter progressive activist who claims to be “literally shaking” or traumatised by some opinion they don’t agree with.

All of these things and a million more besides are a product of the society that we have created in defiance of all those old-fashioned values the Queen stood for, values that our institutions and, sadly, most of the public have spent decades spitting on, sniggering at and ignoring. Our elites routinely smear a predilection for tradition as “fustiness”, a dedication to duty as being “uptight”, stoicism as being “uncaring”, and a desire for privacy as being “out of touch” or “stiff”. Too many of us have bought into this narrative.

The monarchy is one thing that cannot be commodified

It seems to me to be more than a coincidence that this cultural shift, which was so sharply symbolised by the reactions to the death of Diana, came at a time of accelerating globalisation and the consolidation of an intensified, deregulated form of capitalism. The guiding principle of that new economic settlement was that anything and anyone can be commodified, ranging from individuals’ appearance and sexuality to a country’s history and aesthetics: think of “cool Britannia” and the emergence of Britain as a sort of marketing brand in the eyes of Blair and his successors. Emotional “openness”, self-obsession and vanity, perpetual and self-conscious public assertions of one’s fragility, vulnerability and need for the appropriate forms of therapy in response, the temper tantrums and grievances of self-righteous progressive identity politics: all are new cultural fissures that can be mined for profit.

There isn’t money to be made out of restraint, quiet commitment to duty and self-control. A political economy that has become so heavily dependent on monetising our personal vanity, exhibitionism and the crises of self-perception and emotional insecurity that inevitably result, despises those who are private, self-contained and resilient. Other than tourist tat and Corgi soft toys, the monarchy is one thing that cannot be commodified, strip-mined for its cultural assets. It’s an institution that depends for its success on cultivating those qualities that have become radically counter-cultural in a world of hyper-capitalism built upon the commodification of the spectacle: those qualities which our late Queen personified with such dignity and common sense.

As we mourn Her Majesty and her uncomplaining, down-to-earth, stoical approach, let’s not bury those values with her but use her example to resurrect them. Let’s take the first steps towards both a political and a cultural economy based on mutual service, stoical self-restraint and discretion — not tawdry exhibitionism, hyper-commodification and the morality of the Reality TV star. 

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