At a time when the U.S. once again conceives of itself as the leader of a grand coalition of democracies, a visit to the Queue on Sunday afternoon offered a striking reminder that even the country’s closest ally remains stubbornly attached to the institution of royalty.
“I don’t think if the U.K. was a Republic that would be nearly as good,” said John Baker, a 65-year-old high school teacher, six hours into his queuing pilgrimage. Baker cited the hasty restoration of the monarchy after Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived republic in the 17th century.
He also cited the storming of the Capitol and former President Donald Trump’s denial of the 2020 election outcome. The presence of a unifying figure — one above partisan discord — stabilized English politics, he said, and kept it from descending into the sorry state seen in the U.S.
Rafi Ali, 29, suggested the queen’s habit of holding weekly audiences with the head of government offered an important form of oversight, because elected leaders would not want to deliver disappointing news to the monarch. “It keeps prime ministers in check a bit,” he said.
If the idea of a queen keeping tabs on the head of parliament seems fanciful to Americans, the American model hardly struck Brits as any more sensible. “I think what doesn’t make sense is the way the Electoral College works,” a friend of Ali’s chimed in.
In the version of world history taught to Massachusetts school children around the turn of the century, Americans, led by the good people of Boston, rid themselves of King George III and set up the best form of government ever invented (Disclosure: Some of my New England ancestors fought in the American Revolution.) The quarter millennium since has mostly been the story of much of the rest of the world discovering that the American-style democracy was the greatest form of government, and copying it. Even the English followed suit, and we were assured they kept their royal family around only as an amusing vestige, to give the tabloids something to write about.
But in a city where many neighborhood pubs are older than the United States, the show of popular support for hereditary monarchy suggested that many locals were not ready to concede the point that America has proven kings and queens obsolete.
With early estimates putting the throngs of expected mourners at about a million, Elizabeth’s funeral places her out of the league of presidents and prime ministers, and closer to the company of popes.
Looking to the recent history of the West, roughly 250,000 mourners paid tribute to John F. Kennedy, and about 300,000 came out for Winston Churchill, per commonly cited estimates, while John Paul II’s death drew several million to Rome.
It wasn’t just the locals who were having trouble quitting the queen. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has long called for removing the British monarch as his country’s head of state, said last week that he was more focused at the moment on paying his respects to Elizabeth than on making Australia a republic. As he exited Australia’s High Commission building on Sunday afternoon and entered a waiting car, Albanese ignored my question about whether it was time to retire the monarchy altogether.
If that makes Albanese a royal flip-flopper, he has company in the many Londoners who send mixed messages about their views on the monarchy.
On Friday, at Westminster Abbey, preparations for Monday’s funeral were already underway. Just outside, Terry, a tour guide and history teacher, offered a cutting, Noam Chomsky-worthy deconstruction of the U.K.: It remained a feudal society, run by a snobbish elite, where money flowed upward in the form of taxpayer funding for the House of Windsor and rents to aristocratic landowners. But on the whole, Terry said he quite liked the royal family and admired the queen’s dignity.
Even less reverent is “Six,” the hit West End play in which the six wives of Henry VIII offered modern retellings of their stories of divorce and dismemberment with the help of rap verses and techno beats. But at Saturday’s matinee on the Strand, before theatergoers began laughing at jokes about the size of Henry’s royal member, they observed a minute of silence for the queen.
Young people, especially, appear conflicted. Many were as surprised as I was by the willingness of their countrymen to queue for their queen. The sight of it was “bizarre,” said 29-year-old Max Harrison as he looked on from the Westminster Bridge, across the river from Big Ben.
At Project 68, a hip cafe in Bloomsbury, Amy Lubach, 26, said the term “sheep behavior” had come up in a discussion with a friend about the Queue.
But Lubach said she hasn’t quite sorted out her own feelings about the queen.
“She’s actually done quite a lot for this country. Only now that she’s dead I’ve realized that. It’s quite sad really,” Lubach said. “Also, she’s just one woman and people die all the time.”
As King Charles III seeks to win over this generation of Britons, early indications are that he intends to make the monarchy more accessible. On Saturday, he and his heir, William, made a surprise visit to the Queue, shaking hands with regular Britons. It was a more intimate departure from his mother’s iconic wave, and one that signaled the king was willing to take a page from the book of American presidents.
In fact, he may have already proven his popular bona fides by his willingness to wait in line — of succession, that is — for 70 years. It’s an experience that now bonds him to subjects of all stripes.
As 29-year-old Nubia Tuira, who moved to the U.K. two years ago from Brazil put it, “I feel I’m having a proper British experience, because British people love to queue.”