Let’s talk about Queen Elizabeth II and the queue or the queue or the wait depending on your preferred English term. Is there anything more British than a long, shuffling stretch of humanity, with people taking their places for 16 hours or more to pay respects to a late monarch?
I don’t know if the phenomenon could be seen from space last week, but it would fit if it could. Organizers’ warnings that the wait would exceed 24 hours did not deter attendees. Nothing could. Pictures of David Beckham, the former footballer who joined hairdressers and carpenters, demonstrated his appeal to everyone. The gesture to the woman who ruled for 70 years was a testament to the importance of the British monarchy.
One of those attending Monday’s funeral is Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.
Mr. Wang is traveling despite the troubled relations between Britain and China. London and Beijing have fallen out of a “golden era” of relations designed to promote trade and prosperity. The significance of his visit is that the vice president is at the heart of power in Beijing and a crucial ally of President Xi Jinping. At the handover in Hong Kong 25 years ago, he was an important interlocutor for Beijing.
The Speaker of the British House of Commons has banned the Chinese delegation from paying their respects during the Queen’s state lie in retaliation for sanctions against MPs. Despite the move, Mr Wang’s arrival shows Beijing’s desire to maintain ties with Britain. As visitors soak in the broad atmosphere of Britain after the Queen’s death, it will be difficult to resist the conclusion that this was a time of impressive social unity.
Beijing observers have reported that Mr Wang is an avid student of political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville and his analysis of why the French Revolution toppled the so-called “Ancien Regime”. The analysis portrayed the revolution as the result of a deep division between the three estates of clergy, nobility and common people. In Britain these three estates – defined as the establishment, the middle class and the working class – were in step and united this week. At a time when a new government has come into power, Europe is at war and incomes are being squeezed by an energy crisis, this is a precious moment for the UK to come together and keep for as long as possible.
It is possible to attribute the presence of several foreign dignitaries in the United Kingdom to the worldwide appeal Queen Elizabeth has had for decades. Think of Andy Warhol’s portraits of the late monarch, or her ability to syncronize with popular culture in an instantly successful way.
During the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee earlier this summer, I attended an event in central London. There was a debate about how the adventures of the fictional Pooh Bear or Paddington Bear provided larger lessons for the impact of the Elizabethan era on Britain and the world. The arguments of respected scholars revolved around the merits of the protagonists as archetypes of friendliness within a group or as straight-talking migrants who are taken into the laps of their hosts. Hours later, Queen Elizabeth took it all into another dimension with a taped skit featuring Paddington Bear, afternoon tea and a discussion of jam sandwiches.
My own lasting story of the late Queen will likely revolve around her role in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I was stuck in an apartment in the Syrian city of Aleppo, trapped by night artillery fire with a handful of other people. We had just enough internet signal to update Twitter feeds. A Brazilian in the room provided running commentary. It seemed to us that the eighty-year-old monarch had actually jumped into the Olympic Stadium with his parachute strapped to James Bond. If she could, we’d survive the shelling.
The final years of Queen Elizabeth’s seven decades on the throne have been extraordinarily divisive, both in Britain and around the world.
The Ukraine war is still a test of Western unity. Before that, the resurgence of protectionism began to impose handicaps on the world economy that are only now plunging the world into recession. Part of the reason people are reacting to the end of the era her death signaled is that they are acknowledging that she reigned at the height of growing interconnectedness and globalization. To retreat from globalization, as the world has done, is something with superficial appeal, but the glamor and image sculpting that emerged in the Elizabethan era tapped into deep-seated desires for progress.
Why else would people travel to London from Dubai or Detroit to celebrate the reign of a monarch who wasn’t even their head of state? Voyages have they, and many of them have joined the remarkable line up along the south bank of the Thames.
It has been suggested that Queen Elizabeth’s entire legacy is some sort of imperial cleanup. In truth, she transcended empire and even her own typically aristocratic personality.
The powerful lessons of Queen Elizabeth’s reign were global and modernizing. Paying respect to the symbol of that era is worth the long line.
Updated September 19, 2022 at 4:00 am