By Billy Bragg
It is reputedly the longest train journey in Germany – from Munich to Hamburg via Leipzig and Berlin, over seven hours travel time. That’s where I found myself on Thursday as news came through that the Queen’s doctors were ‘concerned about her health’. I was in Germany to give a couple of talks about my most recent book ‘The Three Dimensions of Freedom’ which had originally been planned for 2020. As I was explaining to my travelling companion from my Munich based publisher that the Queen had been becoming visibly frail for some time, I saw a screenshot of Huw Edwards, the BBC newscaster, wearing a black tie.
“I think we have to assume the Queen is already dead” I told my German friend. It seemed unthinkable to me that the BBC would go into mourning by mistake. The outrage that would descend on the corporation should they be seen to jump the gun on such a sensitive issue would be more damaging than any of the scandals that have beset them over the past decade.
It would be several more hours until I saw confirmation of her death, while travelling to the event in a taxi. It was interesting to be in a foreign country when the news broke. People seemed genuinely surprised, unaware that the Queen’s health recently been in decline. The taxi driver, a middle aged man, was visibly moved and spoke about how he felt when his father had died a year after the death of his mother. When I mentioned the news to the audience, there was an audible gasp of shock. Later, in my hotel room, I found that a number of German tv channels were covering the news live.
The Queen clearly meant something to these people, beyond her being the head of state of a neighbouring country.
Personally, I’ve never had strong feelings about the monarchy and the cosmetic role they play in our constitution. My concerns have always been about the way the powers which were once the sole preserve of the monarch have been conferred onto the prime minister, allowing the holder of that office to declare war and sign treaties without recourse to parliamentary debate. Hopefully the ascension of Charles III will initiate a debate about the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy, perhaps helping to kick start reforms such as the abolition of the House of Lords and a written constitution.
Having said that, I do want to take a moment to reflect on the passing of a person who has played a role in our national life over the past seven decades that is unrivalled in its significance. The importance of the Queen as a figurehead was made clear to me in 2007 when I saw a news report of the dedication of the Armed Forces Memorial, remembering those who lost their lives in conflicts since the Second World War. Watching the Queen walk along a line of ex-service personnel who had fought in every war from Korea to Afghanistan, I was struck by the thought that there is no one in British public life whose presence at an event could be equally meaningful to an 80 year old veteran as well as one in their 20s.
Obviously this is a product of the record-breaking longevity of her reign. Very few of us alive today can recall anyone else sitting on the British throne. That fact alone is what makes the notion of a King Charles III so strange and unfamiliar.
As a child, I had a great aunt who lived around the corner from us. Aunt Hannah was born in 1887 and lived in an upstairs flat that was lit by gaslight. She cooked on a coal-fired range and had neither tv nor telephone. Her only real concession to modernity was the fact that she would walk the two streets to our house to watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Like the Queen, she represented a living link with the past, a sense that all the things that had happened in her life could be summoned into the room by her memories. She died in 1972. By the time Elizabeth II was crowned, Aunt Hannah had lived through the reigns of six different monarchs in her 66 years. I’ve managed to rack up almost as many years without witnessing a single coronation.
For people around my age, there is another dimension that gives this moment in our history a poignancy that defies the rational concerns about crown and constitution.
Like the Queen, my parents were born in the 1920s and their formative years were shaped by the Second World War. Her father, George VI, had been Emperor of India and as a child had sat on the knee of Queen Victoria. Yet Elizabeth II represented a break with the Victorian idea of monarchy and empire. Her coronation in 1953 held the promise of a new beginning, of a world without colonies where the state supported each citizen from the cradle to the grave.
My parents were married that same year and, as part of that Elizabethan cohort, they aged along with the Queen, the great markers in their lives falling in the same span of years. They were in uniform together, they met their partners together, had children and later grandchildren together. With both my parents gone, the Queen endured as a reminder of who they were and who they became. She was their last representative, still visible in the life of our nation.
So when they bury her next week, I too will mourn – not so much for the passing of a monarch, but for the passing of a generation.