For whom the bell tolls

This article will be published the day after the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The reason for this is not so much as a showing of respect, which it is, as it is a realisation that, before finalising the text, there was so much happening in royal circles, the media, and with the public, that events were required to come their full circle before all and sundry, including the whole of the family of the late Elizabeth Windsor.

I was motivated to write this article after watching a video clip from Australia. It was called “S.J. Paterson: An Ode to Charles the Third”, and was broadcast by the ABC in Australia as part of a series by the presenter Sammy J. To this writer’s knowledge, Sammy J., whilst being relatively unknown in the UK, is highly regarded down under. His presentation of “An Ode to Charles the Third”, is no less humorous, thought provoking, and contentious as some of his previous programmes I have viewed.

Without going into too much detail, Sammy J’s ode rehearses one Australian approach to the recent change of monarch. It raises issues that Australian republicans, perhaps also those in the UK, must now be contemplating – questions about class, wealth, power, heritage, democracy, and peoples’ choices. Readers may be able to access Sammy J’s ode on YouTube.

Coverage of the death and the aftermath of Elizabeth Windsor has received wall-to-wall coverage by the British news media. Indeed, the event has received wide coverage throughout the world, particularly in Commonwealth countries, even in those states which have displayed republican tendencies.

The death of Elisabeth Windsor has resulted in the cancellation or re-scheduling of regular TV and radio programmes, the postponing of sporting events, the closing of business houses, and, perhaps inevitably, the granting of a public holiday on the day of her funeral. The nation has witnessed more than a week of pomp and circumstance, pageantry, military display, silence, clapping, the sounds of the British National Anthem, in-depth interviews with those who have stories to tell and personal situations to remember, thousands of persons waiting to view the on-display monarch’s casket, or bow silently, clap, or throw a flower towards the funeral cortege. In all of this, the members of the Windsor family have displayed an eminent suitability for the roles for which they have been carefully reared and admirably trained. Their grief appears to meld with that of a public in whose service they find justification and consolation.     

The public reaction to the event of Elizabeth Windsor’s death, whilst overall being sad and sympathetic, has been by no means one-sided – even if republican attitudes have been muted. As a republican, the comments that follow will, understandably focus on the critique of the event. Sufficient has already been voluminously made of the royalist position.

Commenting on the postponing of a full round of major football matches due to the death of Elizabeth Windsor, one spokesperson said that “Football exists in a bubble and must occasionally step out of that bubble into the real world”. In this writer’s view, and to echo the words of the one-time Liverpool football coach, Bill Shankly, football is more than a game, it is a way of life for many ordinary people. It is royalty that exists in a bubble, and the royal game is played by very few persons. It is also a very expensive game.

The funeral of Elizabeth Windsor, and the succession of her eldest son, Charles Windsor, to be King Charles III, has not been without some controversy. Very soon after Charles Windsor became the new monarch, he announced that his eldest son and now heir apparent to the British throne, William, is to be the new Prince of Wales. Seemingly, with no consultation with the Welsh government, not to mention the Welsh people, this situation will no doubt be the subject of much discussion and controversy in the coming weeks, and certainly around the time when the investiture ceremony for the position takes place in traditional location of Caernarvon, North Wales. Perhaps Charles III might need to heed the lessons to be learned from the fates of his  two previous namesakes, the 17th century monarchs Charles I and Charles II.

There will be controversy in the matter of what Charles Windsor decides with respect to the royal and official status of his brother Andrew and son Harry. Early indications are that he will seek to bring them back under royal tutelage and discipline, if not public favour. In this respect, it is interesting, perhaps prophetic, that Prince Andrew has not only been given permission to wear a military uniform when he takes part in the Vigil of the Princes at Westminster Abbey, he has also been allowed to keep his role as Counsellor of State under King Charles III’s reign. This means that he can perform duties for the monarch if he is ill or abroad.

Andrew, along with Prince Harry, Prince William, and Charles (when he was the Prince of Wales), held the position of Counsellor of State before Elizabeth Windsor passed away on 8 September. Under Charles’ reign, Andrew, Harry (37), William (40), and Princess Beatrice (34), will all be Counsellors of State. Those given the role is determined by who are the top four people in the line of succession over the age of 21. Camilla (75), the King’s consort, can also act in King Charles’ absence. Most controversially, perhaps, is the fact that Beatrice, daughter of Andrew, will now be authorised to carry out most of the official duties of the sovereign, including meetings of the Privy Council, signing routine documents, and receiving the credentials of new ambassadors in the UK – according to the royal family website.

It would now appear more clearly than ever, that the role of the British Head of State has become a family affair. Surely a unique situation for the exercise of such a role, and one that is not without controversy.

In comparison with the freedoms afforded the members of the royal family, existing freedoms of the British people are increasingly being abused. In this respect, the arrest of protesters holding protest placards at events where members of the royal family have been present during the past couple of weeks is an affront to democracy and highly likely to be unlawful. One news broadcast firmly stated that “Police officers have a duty to protect people’s right to protest as much as they have a duty to facilitate people’s right to express support, sorrow, or pay their respects.”

In recent days many people have come together to respect Britain’s traditions and national identity. Notwithstanding, it is important to remember that “…a foundation of British democracy is the right to freedom of speech. At a time when the UK is under an international lens, it would be to flagrantly disrespect the values of our country if this right were to be diminished.” Big Brother comes in many disguises!

The death of Elizabeth Windsor represents a significant constitutional moment. An example of this comes from the National Secular Society (NSS), which has long argued that a head of state in the 21st century should have “no constitutional entanglement with religion.” As such, the NSS stands ready to “shape the debate about the monarchy, and advocate for a secular head of state as part of our campaign to separate church and state.”

Likewise, the British Republican Movement (BRM), views the coming year, with, for example, a coronation next Spring, as a year of challenging the basis of monarchy in the UK. The objective of the BRM is, of course, the abolition of the monarchy, and has the major objective of galvanising known republicans, and the challenge of drawing new members into its enterprise. The BRM sees royalty in general, and coronation/investiture ceremonies particularly, as pointless bits of theatre, an absurd charade on a huge, and costly, scale. Nevertheless, these anachronistic, even fantastical, displays have political implications, needing political involvement to counter.

The death of Elizabeth Windsor and the accession of Charles Windsor will usher-in changes to attitudes and, maybe, ways of life in the UK. Some changes will be subtle, such as to flags, stamps, and cash, others may be more publicly observable, for example, fashion, architecture, the environment, and humour, as the new monarch seeks to make his mark. Opinions will change as the time passes, as the doleful and elegiac of the past week gives way to a more spiky and irreverent future. What will be the future of a green king and the nature of public protest?

One thing is certain. This writer will not be dashing out to purchase the special commemorative edition of OK Magazine, “The 100-page tribute that looks back at the life of our most beloved monarch, Queen Elizabeth II”.

In concluding, I reflect on the interview with a lady from the north of England. The lady in question was informing the TV interviewer that she had just pawned her engagement ring so that she could afford to live in the present British economic climate. As the interview concluded, the interviewee sorrowfully said, “I will go home, make myself a cup of tea, and have a good cry”. The woman further commented, “You wonder how much this funeral is going to cost, and yet somehow there isn’t a little more for people like me”. This comment, coming from such a source, is far more potent than if it were to come from a financial commentator looking at government finances.

In all of this, how long will it be before we again hear the ring of Westminster Abbey’s Sebastopol Bell?

RSC

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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