When is it respectful not to go to work? In the run up to Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral, Tesco joined other retailers in announcing it would close all its stores ‘to allow our colleagues to pay their respects’. Center Parcs said it would mark the day by shutting down entirely, forcing visitors to find alternative accommodation in the middle of their holidays. Grieving families had funerals cancelled as crematoria and undertakers paid their respects. With NHS waiting lists at a record high, thousands of hospital appointments were postponed.
For trade union members, the rules of respect flowed the other way. The Communication Workers Union cancelled its planned strikes the day after the queen died ‘out of respect for her service to the country and her family’. The RMT, which had spent months facing down condemnation from the right-wing press as its strikes disrupted summer holidays and the Glastonbury Festival, cancelled two days of industrial action on 15 and 17 September. Neither union consulted its membership before cancelling the strikes. ‘The RMT joins the whole nation in paying its respects to Queen Elizabeth,’ said its general secretary Mick Lynch, who some months earlier had, on national television, cited the Irish Republican revolutionary James Connolly as his political hero. Other unions suspended campaigning and postponed their strike ballots.
Striking at a time of enforced national mourning is categorised as disrespectful because of its political content. That’s obvious, but also telling. A substantial proportion of Britain’s progressives view the monarchy as a benign anachronism. It may imbue our public life with an unhealthy attitude towards inherited wealth and inequality but it is, they think, compatible with the projects of social justice and social progress, and with the assertion of working-class political agency. The last ten days ought to dispel this fantasy. To respect the royal family is, by definition, to suspend class antagonism. Making a profit, collecting energy bills, performing immigration raids and enforcing evictions are all permissible activities in the wake of the queen’s death. Working-class solidarity, campaigning and protest are not.
In the rolling news coverage of the mourning period, it has often been said that people feel as if they knew the queen. They didn’t, of course. Her personality was a cipher onto which the country could project what it liked. Her death affords the British establishment with an opportunity to project a particular kind of national unity. Our system of government, and all the imperial nostalgia that goes with it, are held to be ‘above politics’. To step outside the enforced unity – by heckling royals or politely holding up signs with republican slogans – is to place yourself beyond the pale and open to arrest.
There will be no week of mourning for the more than 200,000 people in Britain who have died of Covid. As we head towards a winter in which many elderly people will freeze to death in their homes because they can’t afford their energy bills, the nation is focused not on how to save lives and prevent misery but on the funeral of a billionaire whose extravagant cost of living was subsidised by public money.
The left has folded. Unions and campaigning organisations have suspended their activities and donned black ties. No major party has challenged the ‘national unity’ framing or the suspension of political life. Clive Lewis is the only Labour MP to have used this moment to reflect on the state of British democracy and the role of the monarchy. ‘The idea of divine and indivisible sovereignty embodied in the monarch has been passed on to parliament,’ he wrote at the weekend. ‘There it continues to legitimise the power of a close-knit elite community resistant to the fact that in a complex modern society all of us have a stake, and all should have a voice.’
Politicians and trade unions may be falling in line with enforced national mourning for purely tactical reasons, but their retreat has deeper consequences. If your project is about mass self-emancipation from oppression and exploitation, intellectual honesty is not something that can be traded lightly. If the left’s institutions and political leaders cave to something as self-evidently irrational as the interdiction against political and industrial dissent when an unelected aristocrat succeeds his mother as head of state, it’s reasonable to ask how serious they are about radical social change.
Outside political institutions there is less self-censorship. On 5 September, Chris Kaba was shot dead by a police officer. Two days after the queen’s death, a crowd of people marched peacefully through central London to protest at the killing of yet another unarmed black man by the Met. The march was one of the few things to penetrate the wall of royal coverage on the rolling news, when a Sky News reporter mistook the crowd for royal well-wishers. The channel later offered an apology.
Far from a moment of national unity, this could become the moment that establishment institutions – monarchy, media and political parties – were caught out of touch with the public mood. There are signs of an organic reaction against the enforced flag-waving. It remains unco-ordinated, however, and largely invisible. To overcome the system of patronage and privilege that the monarchy represents will take courage, not conformity.