When the flag above Buckingham Palace made its way to half mast, the passing tourists decided to stick around to witness a moment of history. There wasn’t anything to actually witness, but nevertheless, they were there – and that counts for something.
The royal easel is only put in place for the glad tidings, not the sad ones – births and marriages, not deaths. The news emerged in the now customary way, via smartphones, and made its breathless way around the gathering crowds. A few solitary voices shouted “God Save the King!”. By the time two footmen emerged to tie the formal notice to the palace gates, the prime minister had already spoken. The gathered crowds watched on their phones.
They watched as the prime minister strode up to the Downing Street lectern for the second time in as many days. PM Liz is only on the third day of her reign. She’s already done more than some of Queen Elizabeth II’s 14 other prime ministers.
“Queen Elizabeth II was the rock on which modern Britain was built,” she said. And she was right to do so. That general sense of an earthquake going on underneath the country’s feet is nothing to do with her having just lifted the ban on fracking. At least not yet.
The first sense that something was awry had come in the House of Commons, six hours before. Ms Truss was in the middle of the defining moment of her premiership when another one came along. The trifling matter of a £150bn intervention to pay everyone’s gas bill for two full years was forgotten within about five minutes of its being announced, when Nadhim Zahawi started passing around a note that instantly drained the blood from the faces of all who were shown it.
There was another note doing the rounds on the Labour benches, and within seconds, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner had scarpered from the chamber in the middle of quite possibly the single most important moment of either of their careers.
We still don’t know exactly what the note said, but we do know that within minutes, Buckingham Palace was doing what it never does and issuing a grave statement on the health of Her Majesty. She was, it said, “under medical supervision”. The need to issue a statement saying absolutely nothing of course says absolutely everything.
For the second time in two days, websites for aviation geeks strained under the weight of people tracking the journeys of small private jets from London to Aberdeen. The one whose flight they followed was carrying not the 14th or 15th prime minister of the Queen’s 70-year reign, but seven close members of Her Majesty’s family, who would land and then pile into Land Rovers, one driven by Prince William, and make their way to Balmoral – all of them, too, wearing the same ashen-faced look.
Well, similar, but not the same. The pictures of William behind the wheel of the car are not those of a man taken aback by the enormity of events, but rather by the enormity of private grief.
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Twenty one years ago, Her Majesty the Queen sent a note to be read out at a church service for British victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It simply said: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
These are the only words I can ever recall hearing that are of any actual comfort to the grieving. Most sentiments that arrive in cards at such times are of no use at all. That short sentence is as beautiful as it is profound.
Of course, a nation doesn’t really grieve for a passing monarch of 96 years of age in the way that her loved ones do, but her death is a profound jolt to the senses. It will take a very long time for it to stop sounding strange when the newsreaders tell us what “the King” has been up to. It will not be long before the cashpoint whirrs and a different face comes sputtering out. That’s never happened before.
National sentiment has changed a lot in 70 years. Deference is very passe, these days. But even among the most fervent republicans, the attitude towards Queen Elizabeth II had become admirably cloudy. What she was most certainly given by birthright, she also most certainly spent seven full decades doing her bit to earn. The immense respect the Queen elicited across the world had nothing to do with obliging deference; it was specifically for who she was.
And in that sense, she will be an impossible act to follow. This seemingly unending age of upheaval has lost its last vestige of continuity.