What seeing the Queen lying-in-state taught me about Britain

For all its stillness and quiet, there was a fountain of emotion gushing out into the room


I have seen Westminster in many different moods, but never this one. The usual hustle and chaos of the Commons Chamber, the stuffy deference of the House of Lords, the rush of journalists and MPs across the lobby – none of these could have prepared me for the still, calm silence of Westminster Hall filled with people slowly passing the coffin of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Every detail was planned and executed perfectly. The footsteps of the thousands paying their respects were muffled by a deep beige carpet laid specially to preserve the peace. They slowly walked by the burgundy platform upon which her royal-purple catafalque held aloft the oak coffin draped in the royal standard. Ten soldiers wearing three different ceremonial uniforms kept guard at all times, relieved every twenty minutes by another ten identical soldiers marching in and sliding into place like clockwork.

The clothes, the room, the ceremony were all like something from our history, but the river of people flowing through the room was unmistakably modern, with their puffer jackets and trainers. This ritual was at once our past and our present, a final farewell before the people emerged into the crisp September night and Britain’s future without the Queen.

The hours-long wait outside on the streets of London had a festival mood, with strangers meeting, laughing together and forming new friendships. Together they celebrated their Britishness, engaging in maybe our most loved of national past times: queueing. This was the queue to end all queues, complete with its own live broadcast and regular all-day updates on the news. Some of the nation’s finest reporters had been dispatched to investigate where the end was, how long people had been in it and even how the disabled were faring. But the very same people who were laughing and happy outside in the early autumn chill, connecting with other Britons they never otherwise would have met, fell totally silent upon entering the hall where the coffin lay.

The entire thing was a machine, like a perfectly tuned engine through which the fuel of people was slowly but constantly flowing, bringing this unreal piece of human theatre to life. Like animals marching onto Noa’s ark, the British public came in every shape, size, colour and type: two nurses in uniform, a group of elderly ladies, children in buggies, a lone policewoman, a man in flip flops, students, men wearing kippot, a flow of people using wheelchairs carefully helped in through a dedicated step-free entrance. The river of people didn’t end, pausing briefly only for the changing of the guard every twenty minutes. Thousands of people passing through, unique but unknown faces in a crowd. But only one of Her.

Even the 10 journalists with me in my group fell calm and silent, stunned by what we saw before us as we were led in to watch from the front of the hall. In our work we see many unusual things, but nothing quite like this. We had been carefully briefed: no phones, no flash photography, wear respectful clothing. For half an hour I watched and listened. Despite the slow, onward parade of well-wishers, time stood still. A sense of calm, peace and solace embraced me: in the formality of this ritual I felt unexpected comfort.

For all its stillness and quiet, there was a fountain of emotion gushing out into the room, overflowing, yet so carefully restrained and so Britishly understated. Total strangers made their way past the coffin, pausing to bow their heads, or make the sign of the cross. People cried, quietly as if at the funeral of a member of their own family. Their respect was for the crown – the position and the symbol – but also for the woman they all felt they somehow knew.

For so many to queue for 10 hours or more to spend just a silent moment in there was itself an inexplicable sign of complete devotion and respect. Whatever the Queen represented to each and every person waiting their turn, she did so in such enormity that they were desperate just to be in her silent presence for a brief moment before she would be gone for ever.

In that half hour I spent ‘with’ the Queen, I thought not just of her and her contribution to our national identity, but also of the wider value of our constitutional monarchy. The rigid obedience of the crowd feels strange, even scary, to some. The emphasis on ceremony, appearance and antiquity can feel jarring in an era focused more on individual self-expression than national conformity. We have learnt from our difficult history to resist blind deference to a leader, however much it seems a mysterious part of our human nature to indulge in it. Propaganda is to be resisted, dogma to be questioned. And yet the uniforms, the four massive glinting candles, the ancient vaulted ceiling; it all felt so comforting. Perhaps our monarchy, our late Queen and now our King, are the best outlet for our very human urge to feel part of something we all have in common: something great, something British.

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