yescover all the clocks, cut the phone,
Stop the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with deaf drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
The barking of politics seems to have been respectfully silenced since the Queen’s death. Parliamentarians were given a couple of days to deliver their eulogies and begin swearing allegiance to Charles III before both chambers were closed. The hapless Liberal Democrats felt compelled to screw up their party’s conference. Partisan hacking and shoving has been strongly discouraged until Elizabeth II arrives at her final resting place in the royal crypt at Windsor.
However, politics has not been as absent as it might seem. In many ways, the days after his death have been intensely political. Start with the man who now occupies the pinnacle of public life. Charles has been the main mourner and, at the same time, has presented himself to the country as its new sovereign. The ceremonies, climaxing with tomorrow’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey, have alternated with an intermittent gift-giving tour of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. His sister, his eldest son and other members of the Windsor team have moved to other parts of the kingdom.
In the way that a politician with known vulnerabilities would, he has tackled the charge that he will be a nosy monarch. The author of the notorious “black spider” memos to ministers has tried to preempt anxieties about how he will behave by promising to “uphold the precious principles of constitutional government”. Most take this to mean that he will adapt his stubborn personality to his mother’s model of real impartiality. In well-crafted speeches to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Senator, he has shown sensitivity to tensions in the union. There is even something of a Carolean manifesto in the suggestions that he will reduce the numbers on the royal payroll to engineer a scaled-down monarchy. All of this amounts to an acknowledgment that the throne is no longer secured simply by heralds in ancient costume blowing bugles for the new king to sit upon. The modern crown has to earn the loyalty and respect of the public. That will ultimately depend on how well he performs, but for now he enjoys goodwill. “Who chose him?” yelled a dissident at a proclamation ceremony in Oxford. That was a rare expression of Republican sentiment and the small number of abolitionist protesters would have drawn less attention had that rioter and a few other protesters not been stopped by police officers who needed a reminder that free speech is a sacred component of our freedom. Pollsters report that the vast majority of those surveyed believe he will do a good job as king, a marked improvement over previous ratings of him. If he were a regular politician, we’d be saying that Charles’ campaign to secure his position is off to a promising start.
The same cannot be said for Liz Truss. Major episodes in national life, and turning points not much more dramatic than the death of our longest-reigning monarch, require leaders to understand and express the sentiments of the country. Mrs. Truss and her team were stunned by the Queen’s death, completely understandable given that she had been sworn in only two days earlier, and then confused about the proper role for Prime Minister, which was less forgivable. Some at Number 10 thought they saw an opportunity for Truss, who took up residence there without a popular mandate, to give herself a more positive definition. It was even reported from Downing Street that she would accompany the new king on his outings. That idea exposed an egregious lack of judgment and had to be quickly squashed. The awkwardness of her bow caused ridicule on social media. Some Conservative MPs joined in the criticism of the brief speech she gave in front of Number 10. I have two observations in this regard. One: They were right to be disappointed by a disappointing interpretation of hastily assembled clichés. Two: It was telling that the Conservatives, instead of biting their lip over Mrs Truss’s lead performance, chose to share their dismay with reporters. That tells us how deeply he dislikes sections of her parliamentary party. The prime minister fared better in her later and longer speech to the House of Commons, but she still struggled to get past the platitudes. Other parliamentarians spoke with much more elegance and resonance.
One of the high-profile speeches came from Sir Keir Starmer. Like Truss, he is a young Republican turned monarchist. Some in his party are fiercely opposed to a hereditary head of state, and many are instinctively uncomfortable with genuflecting in the face of inherited privilege. The Labor leader’s endorsement of Charles III as “a devoted servant of this country” may attract some crooks at his party conference in Liverpool next week. He will ignore them. One of the many reasons Labor was so crushed at the polls in 2019 was the feeling among critical segments of the electorate that it had become an unpatriotic party that hated Britain’s history. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to sound like you have some affection for the country you aspire to rule. Sir Keir will have noted that, from Clement Attlee onwards, all electorally successful Labor leaders were monarchists. His favorite predecessor, Harold Wilson, took what one biographer calls “an almost childlike delight” in the pomp and circumstance of royalty. While paying elegant tributes to the late Queen, Sir Keir has also dropped a few lines that can be interpreted as helpful to his party’s cause by subtly conveying a message of patriotic collectivism: “The country he came to symbolize is greater than any individual or any institution. It is the sum total of all our history and all our efforts.”
There has been much less refinement in the crude political attacks that have been waged within the government while it has been in mourning on the outside. Whitehall is festooned with flags. Inside its walls, top brass are furious at the brutal firing of the permanent secretary of the Treasury and fear it could herald an ideologically driven purge of the civil service by the Truss regime. Conservative MPs offer prayers to the late Queen while cursing her leader for selecting her cabinet from a small group of close friends and right-wing soulmates. Politics will once again be publicly animated when parliament opens later this week. Thérèse Coffey, the new health secretary, is due to present her plan to make the NHS limp through the winter without the service going down completely. Kwasi Kwarteng, the new chancellor, is expected to explain how he intends to pay for unfunded tax cuts and the very expensive energy price cap.
Both ministers can be furtively relieved that the Queen’s death has given them more time to try to make sense of Mrs Truss’s promises. People close to the chancellor have been reporting that he will lift restrictions on City bonds, because ensuring bankers can get rich is obviously a top priority and smart policy when so many people are being crushed by the cost-of-living crisis. Following the government’s refusal to collect additional revenue from the windfall profits of hydrocarbon extractors, Sir Keir’s team is almost pinched in disbelief that the Conservatives are presenting them with dividing lines that Labor would have chosen for themselves.
The response to the Queen’s death has many of us trying to interpret what it says about the character and mood of our country. Think of that vast river of pilgrims winding its way through some of London’s most iconic landmarks as people wait patiently for hours to watch the act of going to bed in Westminster Hall. The queue can be seen as a reverence for tradition, stability and continuity, properties generally associated with the conservative mindset. It can also be seen as an expression of union, community and solidarity, values emphasized by people on the left. I found a mix of all of those elements, along with compassion, civility, and a lot of good humor, when I met people in line for Elizabeth.
In their early political dealings and behaviors, Mrs. Truss and her band of fanatics have shown no respect for tradition, stability and continuity nor for solidarity, community and togetherness. Whatever she stands for, she doesn’t feel like the nation.