The Queen Is Dead

Photograph Source: Queensland State Archives – CC BY 3.0 au

Ukania’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, finally yielded the royal sceptre to her eldest child, who will become King Charles III. Charles’s wife Camilla will now become Queen Camilla.

The next few days will see an unparalled excess of Ruritanian/Ukanian flummery, probably the only thing Ukania is good at these days— parades with mounted soldiers and carriages; gun salutes on the banks of the Thames; special programming on radio and TV; flag-bearing crowds congregating outside the royal residences; everyone, from the new king to the archbishop of Canterbury, decked out in their finest regalia, and so on.

This will also be a rare-old-time for paparazzi and the court correspondents of the tabloids. Will Meghan Markle and Kate speak to each other? What will the reprobate Prince Andrew be up to? Which of the royal offspring will misbehave and how?

The only people missing out, somewhat, will be the fashion experts. Unlike the fashion parades at royal weddings, there is only so much you can do with a black dress and hat, unless some royal figure shows up in a black mini skirt.

As a marker of how “seriously” this is being taken, Selfridges, the famous department store on Oxford Street, sent me as a customer an email on Thursday evening saying they would be closed all day Friday “as a mark of respect” before reopening on Saturday— doubtless crammed to the ceilings with “Queenie memorabilia” for eager customers to purchase.

Most things bearing the queen’s image or the inscription EiiR (e.g. official flags, postage stamps, banknotes and coins, regimental insignia, royal warrants, the national anthem “God Save the Queen”) will have to be changed.

School children and their teachers will be grateful for a day off, and soccer and cricket matches are already being called-off.

All this will serve as a distraction from the major problems now besetting the UK.

The pound is at its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. The country’s surging inflation rate is the highest among G7 nations, and the Bank of England has predicted that inflation could pass 13% by next month.

Households across the country face a cost-of-living crisis, driven by soaring energy bills (while the price-gouging energy companies make record profits), transportation costs (while the railway companies receive government subsidies of around £5bn/$5.75bn per year, an increase of over 200% since privatisation in 1997), and surging water rates (while the unregulated water companies pump sewage into rivers, lakes and the sea even as their CEOs reward themselves with mega-bonuses— these bonuses rose by 20% in 2021, despite most firms not meeting sewage pollution targets).

The understaffed and under-resourced NHS is really struggling, with waiting times for surgeries and doctors appointments at a record level since the service was started in 1948. The total number of people in England waiting for hospital treatment rose to a record high of 6.8 million at the end of July – almost 1 in 8 of England’s population.

Wealth inequality has also been growing. Between 2012 and 2021, the average income of the richest 20% of the population increased by more than 9%. However, the average income of the poorest 20% of the population stayed the same over those 9 years.

The Tory leadership contest, from which Liz Truss emerged winner and became prime minister, displayed no interest whatsoever in this critical situation.

Instead the candidates, having to appeal to the Tory party’s benighted membership to win the contest, focused primarily on the culture wars and “anti-woke” issues, while the economic crisis was seen only through the cracked lens of Thatcherite nostrums— a low-tax and “anti-handout” small state predicated on the creation of an “aspiration nation” (whatever the latter bullshit notion is).

Despite the advantage of reserves of North Sea oil, now all but gone, and a raft of valuable publicly owned enterprises to sell-off to the private sector, Thatcher failed in her attempt to make this small state a reality.

Many Tories persist in the illusion that this Thatcherite state can however still be created.

Also never mentioned during the Tory leadership contest was the continuing Covid pandemic. Twice as many people died from Covid in the summer of 2022 as did in the summer of 2021.

The Tory party and the Brits who have kept them in power for 12 years have long been detached from reality.

Tom Nairn, the brilliant theorist of the British state and creator of the title “Ukania”, has argued for decades (see for instance his classic 1977 The Break-Up of Britain and the 1989 The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy) that the “Royal passion-play” (Nairn’s phrase from the latter)  has provided a “personalized and totemic symbolism” (again, Nairn’s phrase from the latter) to underpin the creation of an identity enabling the functional unification of its diverse and incompatible components (Scotland, Wales, the north of Ireland, the hegemonic England).

This functional unification has needed constant reinventing and overhauling, and the monarchy has been integral to this process.

It is hoped that the passing Ukania’s longest reigning monarch may lead to the dismantling of this “personalized and totemic symbolism” and the bankrupt politics it subtended.

Only then will the prospect of a new, and hopefully better, politics appear on Ukania’s so far clouded horizon.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.