On Thursday morning, British Parliamentarians were debating the country’s looming cost-of-living catastrophe: With surging energy bills projected to drive two-thirds of the population into fuel poverty—which, without drastic intervention, would spark social and economic meltdown—the new Conservative prime minister, Liz Truss, was forced to unveil a package of measures even more expensive than Britain’s response to the pandemic. But as she defended her refusal to fund her proposals by imposing a windfall tax on the energy companies’ £170 billion excess profits, the atmosphere darkened, notes were passed among government and opposition politicians, and faces turned grave. The queen’s ill health was swiftly publicly announced, but by early afternoon it was common knowledge among British journalists that she had passed, although the BBC’s rolling coverage kept up until early evening a pretense belied only by the news anchors’ black ties. Britain was no longer discussing its gravest peacetime social emergency for a century; one BBC anchor suggested the energy bills’ crisis was “of course insignificant now given the gravity of the situation we seem to be experiencing with Her Majesty.”
When it comes to matters related to the British monarchy, the BBC doesn’t even attempt to disguise its partiality. The institution is uncritically lauded, portrayed as an inalienable component of Britishness, its detractors only technically not excluded from a debate about its existence because no such debate meaningfully exists. The death of a queen whose reign began when Winston Churchill was prime minister would inevitably put rocket boosters on such coverage: From the energy crisis to Ukraine, Britain’s broadcasters have largely banished all else from the airwaves. But there are hints of desperation behind the media’s attempt to enforce a state of national grief, summed up by one BBC commentator musing that the royal hearse was passing silent crowds in Scotland because Scottish people “don’t emote as enthusiastically as people down south.”
The final years of Elizabeth II’s reign have been marked by a state of perpetual tumult—a period that formally began when over half the population voted to exit the European Union in 2016, but whose roots go back further. Since the financial crash and the ideologically charged austerity that followed, Britain has suffered its longest squeeze in wages since the fall of Emperor Napoleon. No other industrialized country besides Greece saw such a protracted fall in workers’ living standards. This has fueled much of Britain’s tumult, along with the surge in support for Scottish independence, the Brexit saga, and the rise in Corbynism, which—after the ruling Conservatives lost their majority in 2017—caused genuine terror in elite circles for a time. The fall of Boris Johnson—a self-evident charlatan and liar who was built up by the British media, until it brought him down over illicit partying during the pandemic—means the queen has appointed four prime ministers in the past six years, representing over a quarter of the total number since she assumed the throne seven decades ago.
This chronic political instability has been accompanied by an increasingly rebellious mood among the queen’s subjects. Unions had committed to a wave of strikes, led by the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers, whose general secretary, Mick Lynch—a former blacklisted construction worker and Eurostar employee—became an unexpected political sensation after his put-downs of hostile and ill-informed broadcasters attracted widespread applause. When the unions launched a new mass campaign—Enough is Enough—to fight the cost-of-living crisis, over half a million signed up in support in days, more than the membership of any political party. But national mourning means an expectation that dissent must silence itself: strikes have been called off, and the Trade Union Congress—Britain’s national labor federation—has called off an annual conference that was intended as a crucial springboard for a united campaign of action. However, the exploitative behavior of British bosses—one study by the Unite trade union suggests that nearly 60 percent of inflation is caused by corporate profiteering—sadly persists.
National mourning demands conformity, with often surreal consequences. The Met Office—Britain’s national weather service—announced that it was suspending advance forecasts following the queen’s death: Apparently describing weather is now disrespectful. One journalist suggested that the queen be granted a posthumous Oscar for a video she made with Paddington Bear. McDonald’s kiosks light up with the dead monarch’s face, below “ORDER HERE,” while the Daily Mail reported on the “astonishing moment a cloud resembling Queen Elizabeth floats over English town just after she dies.” Gay fetish nights have been canceled, while Poppers Aromas—a company selling the legal high amyl nitrate—joined in the tributes.
Despite government advice stating that cancellations of events are not necessary, cancellations are the order of the day. Local authorities have apparently scanned through their schedules for something—anything—to cancel, possibly in fear of otherwise being shredded by the right-wing press. One Labour council scrapped its Car Free Day, allowing motorists to pollute the streets in a touching tribute to the queen, while another representing a diverse, young borough canceled its carnival. Football matches have been called off, but rugby and cricket—which, in England certainly, attract more affluent supporters—can still go ahead. Indeed, if the unabashed privilege of monarchy epitomizes inequality, the national mourning has enshrined it. The canceling of events means a sudden loss of income for low-paid, precarious workers—not least those on the zero-hour contracts that have boomed in neoliberal Britain.
Other tensions have simmered, too. After protesters took to the streets of central London following the police shooting of unarmed 24-year-old Black man Chris Kaba last week, Sky News misreported the demonstration as a show of adoration for the dead queen. With polling suggesting that more people of color than not believe the royal family is racist by a decisive margin—and more support a republic than not—the misrepresentation of Black protesters grieving over the killing of one of their own as forelock-tugging monarchists was particularly egregious. Indeed, there is a broader context here: Meghan Markle—the first woman of color admitted into the royal family—has been hounded by the British media and briefed against by royal courtiers. The same level of obsessive animosity has not been directed at Prince Andrew, the former associate of pedophile sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein who paid millions of pounds to accuser Virginia Giuffre—partly bailed out by the queen, who regarded Andrew as her favorite son.
But despite the committed efforts of Britain’s slavishly monarchist media, the public passion that once existed for the royal family has dissipated. Up to 3 million lined the streets for the coronation of the queen in 1953, but that zeal has subsided. While support for retention of the monarchy remains high, it has declined from 75 percent a decade ago to 62 percent today. Many of those who support a monarchist position do so passively or pragmatically, unconvinced about alternatives and buying into the myth that tourism to Britain depends on an unelected head of state. Crucially, each generation is progressively turning against Britain’s ruling family: While support for monarchy enjoys a 68-point lead amongst pensioners, a British republic has a 10-point lead among the under-25s. As deference to privilege and power decline, so does the social base of the Royals. Police harassment and arrests of republicans speaks to both an authoritarian state and an insecure establishment.
Indeed, the queen was a highly effective trump card for monarchism, cultivating an aloofness—her public utterances were largely confined to platitudinous and thus inoffensive Christmas addresses—that provoked little antagonism. Her son—now King Charles III—on the other hand has a long history of political meddling. His valets iron his shoelaces, fold his underwear, and squeeze out his toothpaste each morning, and his televised expressions of rage at aides for not clearing a pen box and an inkwell as he signed the Accession Proclamation making him king suggest an arrogant sense of class-based superiority. Indeed, while polling showed that the Queen enjoyed overwhelming popularity, King Charles is a far more divisive prospect. If the Crown is the lid on Britain’s pressure cooker, it is now less firmly placed on a more combustible pot. A polarized nation gripped by social emergency, rising tensions, and an identity crisis cannot be managed in the old ways. Can a monarchy that has lost its one truly unifying star player still serve as a roadblock holding back social convulsion—not least when its own legitimacy faces growing challenges? Its champions may use this time of national mourning to silence its critics as indecent and macabre—but, sooner or later, a reckoning is coming.