Queen Elizabeth II famously heard of her father’s death and her accession to the throne on a royal visit to Kenya. Preparing to return to London – “only a child”, Winston Churchill was privately fretting of the new monarch – her spoken thoughts were for the retinue who had accompanied her to Kenya. She told one lady-in-waiting: “I’ve ruined everybody’s trip.” As far as her father’s death and its vast consequences for the rest of her natural life were concerned, her husband’s private secretary thought “her feelings were deep, deep inside her”. And there they, and almost all her other feelings, would stay for the next seven decades.
The British people’s feelings are another matter. The country has a complex relationship with its emotions. I always think politicians and many of our institutions are most frightened of the public having emotions. Perhaps they have a vested interest in portraying emotions as a kind of weakness, lying as they do in some uncharted realm beyond their control. The display of emotions is frequently regarded as a defeat. They are something to which we “give in”. It suits many people for us not to do so. And yet, why? Is this in our interests or theirs? Maybe we already know the answer.
The emotional moment of the Queen’s death is only just beginning but will be far-reaching; its short-, medium- and long-term implications are fascinatingly – and for some, frighteningly – unpredictable. Not for everyone, of course – and there are many different emotions bubbling up. But the Queen’s long and constant chapter has closed at a moment of great uncertainty and gathering struggle for the country she reigned over for 70 years. It feels noteworthy that of her 15 prime ministers, four of them have turned up for audiences with her in the past six years alone. She was widely held to have embodied virtues whose absence in public life is increasingly evident. For some time, there has been a growing sense that the wheels are coming off all sorts of different machines – a feeling that we may not be watching the end of a season but the end of the whole series.
Will the emotion remain, in that telling phrase, “in its place”? The outpouring of emotion that followed the death of Diana was a landmark moment. In her lifetime, Diana had been regarded as a dangerous subversive for saying things like “I lead from the heart, not the head.” After her death, politicians and institutions looked at the display of emotion and appeared anxious to channel it appropriately, whatever that means. And, ultimately, to put a lid on it as soon as possible.
There is a very interesting Mass Observation paper that seeks to explore and caveat the idea that the nation in the wake of Diana’s death was “united in grief”, as the newspapers took daily pains to assure it. In those heady days, though people may now choose to forget it, the supposedly unemotional Queen and her family were cast as the villains. “SHOW US YOU CARE” was the Daily Express’s front-page order to the sovereign to leave off from comforting her bereaved grandsons at Balmoral and respond to public emotion. “A private crisis had become a public one,” wrote the historian Ben Pimlott, “even though nobody knew what it was about.” The Queen’s eventual return to London and public address to the nation was hailed as a victory for people power. As the Mirror had it: “YOU SPOKE, THEY LISTENED”. Or to put it in the parlance of our time: she sees you.
As the Mass Observation study shows, the true picture was more complicated, but the spectacle of mass grief – mass anger, mass hysteria, mass anything – had clearly spooked and unnerved many people. Thereafter, those who subsequently described public reactions to other events as a “Diana moment” sought to be disparaging, yet unwittingly conveyed a thinly disguised terror at the power of public emotions and where that sort of thing could end.
The behaviour of people on both sides of the EU referendum was cast by many on the opposing side as emotionally led, and consequently to be looked down upon. Those who voted to leave were deemed by many of those who hadn’t to have made an emotional decision, which was therefore bad. In the immediate aftermath of the result, the emotional reaction of those who had voted to remain was denigrated by, among others, Boris Johnson. “There is, among a section of the population, a kind of hysteria,” he decided, “a contagious mourning of the kind that I remember in 1997 after the death of the Princess of Wales.” Back in 1997 itself, Johnson had judged the country had gone mad, accusing people of a “Latin American peasant hagiolatry”.
After the death of the Queen, we may now be on the brink of what Johnson once thought was “contagious mourning”, but what many others would see as something entirely more profound – and still others as something provocative or alienating or rooted in changing historical currents we have yet to understand. But what is clear is that it is coming at a time of rapidly establishing flux and peril. A poll this week found 61% of 18- to 34-year-olds supported running the UK with “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament/elections”. Away from the noise of the formalised news cycle, it has felt for some time as though all sorts of emotions and impulses are surging. The country is on strange tides.
There is, of course, an obverse of collective sadness, which comes from the same place. The great Barbara Ehrenreich, who died last week, wrote a whole history of collective joy, in which she detailed the age-old creation – and suppression – of mass celebrations that allow us to let go of ourselves completely. From pagan rituals to medieval dance manias to rock concerts, the communal ecstasy felt by participants is therapeutic. But this spontaneity is disapproved of by those with power, and very often regarded as something to be put down or stamped out. It stems from that fear of collective consciousness, of people being part of something – of feeling part of something – not in the rational sphere. Time and again, the authorities work hard to disperse the participants and return them to their atomised state.
This was what happened with collective grief in the wake of Diana’s death, even if it wasn’t universal. The public reaction to the Queen’s death began the moment it was announced. But the reaction to that reaction will be part of the story; and both are deeply significant, and only just beginning to unfold.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
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