“It’s very sad, how she’s passed away,” said Tina. “She did so much. She was the longest-reigning person who ever had the crown. And now she’s not here, there’s a big loss in the world. She brought us together, I think.”
We were in Milton Keynes, the new town that was granted city status to mark the Queen’s recent platinum jubilee. We chatted outside the council house Tina has lived in for more than a decade: the kind of modernist home, looking out on green space, that once brought droves of people to a place conceived in the last big burst of postwar optimism. But the Netherfield estate now looks noticeably rundown and unloved, and the details of people’s lives are often of a piece.
Tina’s is no exception. She and her husband, both grandparents, depend on disability benefits. With bills and prices rocketing, she is getting ready for a grim winter. “I feel the cold,” she said. “My bones ache. So when it gets cold, do I wrap up with a few layers or just go to bed?” But within a few moments, we were back to talking about the Queen. “There was a real connection there,” she said. “It’ll be a few more months till people can get their heads together.”
Not for the first time, I was reminded of monarchy’s remarkable power: the way it somehow defies vast social gaps, and smooths over the most glaring inequalities. To some people – like me – those things ultimately amount to an awful kind of con trick. Royalist voices, by contrast, would presumably emphasise the institution’s central place in ideas of the United Kingdom as a national community, and the late monarch’s undeniable talent for words, actions and gestures that sustained millions of people’s deep sense of belonging to it. You can take your pick, but in either case, what we are really talking about is an institution whose hegemonic magic was probably never greater than when Elizabeth II was on the throne.
In three days on the road talking to people about the Queen’s passing and what it might mean (a Guardian film of our travels will appear later this week), that basic point has hit me time and again, mostly in conversations with people aged over 40. In both the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral and inner-city Birmingham, passersby talked in the same terms about duty, public service and the loss of such a long-serving monarch being almost unthinkable. In a takeaway food shop in Milton Keynes, I had a long conversation with a man from Ghana who bashfully showed me the WhatsApp message he had sent his friends and family: “I have lost my Grandmother.” Occasionally, there was a sense of people reciting a script written by someone else, but at plenty of other occasions, they conveyed their feelings with an authentic sense of loss.
But at the lower end of the age range, something rather different happened. For the most part, younger people seem to see the Queen and the rituals that have followed her death much more dispassionately. From people in their late teens and 20s, I have heard acknowledgments of her family’s loss and her life of public service, but also things that have underlined a yawning sense of distance between royalty and everyday reality.
In the Birmingham neighbourhood Handsworth, for example, I met Aleisha and Kay, two 18-year-olds who put their feelings about the past week’s news in the context of an area that has long been neglected. “I care, and I don’t care,” said Kay. The Queen’s death was sad, she said, but she felt no real sense of connection with her. “She ain’t done nothing for us,” she said. The conversation then turned to the lack of local job opportunities, the fact that there is precious little for young people to do, and her and her friends’ anxieties about the future.
These were opinions I also heard elsewhere, highlighting a sharp generational difference borne out by opinion polling: last year, for example, a YouGov poll found that only 31% of people aged 18 to 24 agreed that the monarchy should carry on, contrasted with 81% of people over 65. Some of this, clearly, is about the royal family’s recent contortions over the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Andrew. But it also seems to reflect no end of deep social shifts, and the huge differences between the kingdom we used to be, and the much more divided, uncertain country we have been evolving into for at least three decades.
In all the coverage of the Queen’s passing, one simple historical point has been noticeably missing, perhaps because it is deemed too awkward to talk about. At the time of her coronation, the idea of a tightly bound national community with the monarch at its apex made an appealing kind of sense. The left’s social democracy had fused with the right’s patrician instincts to produce the postwar consensus. In 1953, a Conservative government built nearly 250,000 council houses, the largest number ever constructed in a single year. By modern standards, most employment was relatively secure. Even if lots of people were excluded from this dream, and many lives would subsequently take a turn into insecurity and uncertainty, the postwar era inculcated enough faith in the UK’s institutions to keep the monarchy safely beyond criticism.
And now? The social attitudes that defined that period, and lingered into the 1990s – a strange mixture of solidarity and deference, and a widely shared optimism about the future – seem very quaint. If you are in your late teens, just about all of your memories will be of the endless turbulence that followed the financial crash of 2008. Your most visceral experience of politics will have been the opposite of consensus and harmony: the seething polarisation triggered by Brexit. For many of those aged under 40, homeownership is a distant dream, and hopes of job security seem slim. Meanwhile, perhaps because society and the economy have been in such a state of flux, space has at last been opened to talk about things that 20th-century Britain stubbornly kept under wraps: empire, systemic racism, the plain fact that so many of the institutions we are still encouraged to revere are rooted in some of the most appalling aspects of this country’s history.
The result of that change is a kingdom with two distinct sets of voices: one that reflects Britain’s tendency to conservatism and tradition, and another that sounds altogether more irreverent and questioning. In all the coverage of the Queen’s passing, the first has been dominant: how could it be otherwise? But as the period of mourning recedes, and a new monarch tries to adapt fantastically challenging realities, that may not hold for long. The post-Elizabethan age, in other words, is going to be very interesting indeed.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist