“THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY. They do things differently there.” Unfortunately, the English tendency is towards nostalgic admiration for this imagined land, rather than a desire to weigh and discern what values and relevance that territory may have for us in the present.
We have not been short of opportunities to consider these matters during the period between the death of Elizabeth II on 8 September and the completion of her obsequies on 19 September.
Because there are few who can now have an adult memory of the death and state funeral of George VI, it is easy to attribute whatever is done to ‘tradition’. For that reason, it is worth taking a brief look at some of the changes which have taken place in Britain over the past 70 years.
In 1952, sexual relationships between men were a criminal offence. A woman could not take out a mortgage in her own right. Debutantes were still presented at court and only two per cent of households had a television. The mass media – including social media – now has a reach that would have been unthinkable 70 years ago, and with that has come a decline in formality and deference.
We are now further away from the royal ceremonies of 1952 than their participants were from the second Boer war. In short, a society very far removed in its attitudes, opportunities and perceptions of equality from that of today, has nonetheless been accepted as the model for our ceremonial responses to the death of a monarch.
That so much of the dramaturgy surrounding these ceremonies has been military indicates how little we seem to have learned about our changing times and how, in times of shock, we turn to the past certainties of throne and altar. Empire and Gospel do not seem to sit as uneasily as they should in our Established Church but it appears that is where many have been encouraged to find comfort.
Looking to the past for less than edifying reasons has been ably dissected by Bernadette Meaden in her comment piece of 26 September: Under a Truss government, the future may resemble the past Within a day, the disaster of the Kwarteng/Truss ‘mini-budget’ had become apparent as the pound crashed and a domestic financial crisis described as the “most serious economic situation” in recent UK history faced the country.
On 28 September, the Bank of England stepped in, announcing plans to buy government bonds in an attempt to avoid “a material risk to UK financial stability”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also intervened to rebuke the government: “Given elevated inflation pressures in many countries, including the UK, we do not recommend large and untargeted fiscal packages at this juncture, as it is important that fiscal policy does not work at cross-purposes to monetary policy”. The IMF went on to urge the Chancellor to rethink and to “consider ways to provide support that is more targeted and re-evaluate the tax measures, especially those that benefit high income earners.”
And what was this astonishing act of destructive ineptitude for? To deliver large tax advantages to a very small number of wealthy people. Another case of looking to a past which was only ever admired and upheld by the forebears of that minority. Power knows which buttons to press in pursuit of its own interests.
The tiny selectorate which placed Liz Truss in No 10 and enabled Kwasi Kwarteng’s tenure in No 11, is hugely unrepresentative of modern Britain. A Venn diagram of those largely elderly, male, prosperous and white Conservative Party members who chose the new Prime Minister would seem very likely to have a fair degree of overlap with the ‘traditionalists’ who demanded the form which the pageantry and funeral rites of the Queen should take. It is not an exact comparison because the personal popularity of Elizabeth Windsor had grown with her longevity. But it does have the common ground of appearing unable to read the signs of the times – a failing for which Jesus once rebuked his followers.
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen