Britain returns to its unusual business after Queen Elizabeth's death

By Paul Myers - RFI
Europe  Paul MyersRFI
SEP 28, 2022 LISTEN
© Paul Myers/RFI

"Look at all them people who want to go in there," said a boy as he passed by the iron railings bordering a well-kempt bright green lawn in Parliament Square.

The “there” was Westminster Abbey. Just over a week ago “there” was the centre of attention for the funeral service for Queen Elizabeth II.

Pomp and circumstance held sway during a fresh autumnal morning for the public farewell to the monarch who had reigned for 70 years over Britain and the Commonwealth - the group of former British colonies.

A private ceremony attended by family members preceded her interment next to her husband Prince Philip as well as her mother and father at the King George VI Memorial Chapel within St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Britain effectively came to a standstill while an estimated one million people lined the route of the coffin through central London. A further 100,000 gathered in Windsor - 38 kilometres to the west of London.

Just over a week on, buses and other ragged urban banalities had returned to the roads where precision and vivid choreography had intertwined to weave the nation into a fold of unity.

The world looked on in wonder and in the countries where royalty has been abolished or minimalised - no little envy.

Pictures of the late Queen still adorned the window of a Snappy Snaps photo printing and digital transfer shop in Victoria Street - a kilometre from the Abbey.

“Of course we were closed for the day,” said manageress Themis Leventis proudly.

She explained that head office executives had given franchise holders the option to remain open on the Monday which had been designated a national holiday.

“Some places do open on those holiday Mondays but there was no way we were going to do that on that day,” added the 57-year-old. “Everybody in the team agreed to close.”

Leventis, who lives in Twickenham, south-west London, said she went with her 30 and 22-year-old daughters as well as her sister-in law and niece to Windsor Castle a day before the state funeral to pay their respects.

“My youngest still lives at home and my eldest came over from Cambridge for it,” she said.

“They wanted to go. It was really emotional … all the flowers and tributes.”

Even a week on, she said customers in the shop were still mentioning the funeral and admitted she was getting goose bumps recalling the Queen's dedication to her duty to serve her country.

It was a pledge the then Princess Elzabeth made on her 21st birthday during a trip to Cape Town in South Africa.

“Rarely has such a promise been so well kept,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during the funeral service.

“Few leaders receive the outpouring of love that we have seen.

"People of loving service are rare in any walk of life,” he added.

“Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.”

A political point? Perhaps. But within five days of the service, the British government had launched a series of economic measures that overtly advantaged the wealthiest in the interim while promising benefits to the less well-off in the long term.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the new finance minister, announced tax cuts and fewer restrictions on regulating businesses. Kwarteng said the aim was to end the vicious cycle of stagnation - low growth and high inflation.

He said the initiatives, which include removing the cap on bankers' bonuses, would lead to a virtuous cycle of growth.

But the idea will leave government borrowing at around 100 billion pounds in 2026.

Rachel Reeves, the opposition finance minister, said that Kwarteng and the prime minister Liz Truss were like two desperate gamblers in a casino chasing a losing run.

The independent economic research centre, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) warned the measures would bring the government into conflict with the Bank of England.

Paul Johnson, the IFS's director, said: "Mr Kwarteng announced the biggest package of tax cuts in 50 years without even a semblance of an effort to make the public finance numbers add up. 

"This marks such a dramatic change in the direction of economic policy-making that some of the longer-serving cabinet ministers might be worried about getting whiplash."

Squabbles between the political parties is as old as the monarchy that they have managed to harness constitutionally.

As King Charles III savours the taste of regal power, Britons face rocketing inflation, brutally high energy costs, an overall increase in prices, continuing friction with the European Union in the wake of the Brexit decision and Scotland frothing for independence.

In his first televised address to the nation following his mother's death, the King said his new responsibilities would mean less time for the charities and issues he has espoused.

Evidently. He was something of Greeny Prince Charlie. In his 20s he showed he was ahead of the trend by trying to highlight the effects of carbon emissions. 

“Conservation or problems about pollution should not be held up as separate concepts from housing or other social schemes," he told the Countryside in 1970 conference

"'Conservation' means being aware of the total environment that we live in … The word ecology implies the relationship of an organism to its environment and we are just as much an organism as any other animal that is often unfortunate enough to share this earth with us."

Charles was presented as somewhat odd. But everyone has caught up with the prescient prince.

Now the King, he has to stiffen an upper lip much in the way that his mother did with an array of prime ministers in order to guarantee the succession of the Firm - as King George VI - Charles's grandfather - dubbed the royal family.

And with that address less than 24 hours after his mother's death, a very British paradox continued.

Titles were swiftly assumed and deftly passed on before any subject could object. It was privilege rampant yet in hock to the hoi poloi many of whom would take up arms to defend that blatant superiority.

It makes Britain what it is. A curious place.
"If there is one thing we learned from our longest serving monarch, it is that the building of national unity requires care, balance and judgment, wrote Andy Burnham the mayor of Manchester in the newspaper the Evening Standard four days after the state funeral.

"It means making sure all people and all communities feel seen and heard.

"It would be an extraordinary state of affairs, at the end of this week of all weeks, if that lesson was lost at the first opportunity."

It was. And in a way, Truss and Kwarteng with their putative gamble might make Britain better for it. Their push for the affluent was strong and determined.

 The Queen's death has merely clarified the pretence. All the inequalities that her devotions had managed to cloak have been laid bare by politicians aware they can cavort and effectively sneer at her legacy as they run counter to her quest.

On Tuesday, Kwarteng met top bosses from City of London firms to tell them he was unrepentant.

He insisted that the government would stick to its economic strategy despite a market sell-off that has sent the value of pound plummeting.

Those pound notes and coins still bear the visage of Elizabeth II. Less than a month after her death, at least her worth is still rising.