What is going on in the United Kingdom? It’s a question with a simple, four-word answer: the queen is dead. That is almost literally everything that is happening here at the moment.
Since the queen died last Thursday, the country has ground to a halt. The queen is dead for breakfast, the queen is dead for lunch, and you’ll want to leave room for a nice hearty portion of the queen is dead for dinner, too. People are still going to work, sure, but there is no press except press about the queen being dead. Every business in the country—from chicken shops to pork jerky brads, chemists to cobblers—have felt the need to issue a public statement of grief about the queen dying. Supermarkets have turned down the beeps on their self-checkout machines to mark their depth of feeling for the queen. Our weather forecaster, the Met Office, has cut back the number of weather reports it is issuing “as a mark of respect during this time of national mourning.” An amusement park company, Center Parcs, announced its intention to kick all vacationers staying in their parks out for one day, the queen’s funeral, before realizing just how deranged that would be and making a U-turn.
Insufficiently serious cinematic releases like Ticket to Paradise, the new George Clooney and Julia Roberts vehicle, are being delayed. You can go to the cinema to watch the queen’s funeral, but you may only drink water and eat nothing, in case your hot dog meets with the displeasure of the dead queen.
So there’s a weird confluence of feelings: on the one hand, all of this is mental and stupid and therefore funny, but on the other hand everything being shut down or in a holding pattern until the “mourning period” is over is boring. The country is in limbo at the moment, or maybe existing out of time. The news feels like it’s from 1630, with headlines like “Public gather to kiss the rings of King Charles.”
But there is also something more sinister brewing here. Hospital appointments on the day of the queen’s funeral are cancelled. Food banks are closed. Normal people’s funerals are also cancelled. On the day the queen died, Liz Truss, our new prime minister, quietly lifted the ban on fracking in this country and also announced a plan to relieve Britons of crippling energy bills this winter without explaining where that money is going to come from. I’m not suggesting that anybody offed the queen early for political expediency, but parliament will now be closed for a month: again, to respect the dead queen.
This could hardly come at a worse time for the country. The cost-of-living crisis in the U.K. needs urgent political attention, and the cost of energy is going to become more and more pressing as the weather gets colder.
These are interesting times to have a new prime minister and a new monarch in the same week. Things really suck here at the moment. People are frustrated. Everything is expensive, the post-pandemic mental health crisis is about to hit us like a freight train, and our seas and rivers are full of sewage that Tory MPs voted to have dumped there. And a lot of people who loved the queen in a grandmotherly kind of way but would count themselves as republicans are now faced with King Charles, who has already been filmed snarling at an aide to remove something from a table. Looking ahead, it seems likely that we are going to witness a vast, gaudy display of elite wealth, King Charles’ coronation, just as the rest of the country drags itself through one of the worst recessions in history.
There have also been the small incidents of anti-royal protest all over the country that have been met by the law with a ludicrously heavy hand. A young woman was arrested in Edinburgh for holding up a sign saying “fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy.” A man in Oxford was arrested for shouting “who elected him?” when King Charles was being proclaimed as the king on Sunday.
The severity of this reaction from the police, and from the crown by extension, suggests an unease. Some people have wondered whether this uncertain time is going to provide an opportunity to interrogate whether we want a monarchy: whether there isn’t another way forward than simply accepting another unelected head of state, another round of our “purely symbolic” monarchy that is made up of real people who receive our real tax money and that we’re not allowed to criticize publicly or we’ll get thrown in real jail.
Perhaps it will. But I’m not convinced. I spent some time at Buckingham Palace this past weekend, reporting something else about the queen, because again: there is no room for other news here. People did not seem ready to revolt. The British people and the monarchy is the ultimate case of Stockholm syndrome, and I don’t see that there’s any real hope for a cure.