With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, ending her 70-year reign, the United Kingdom has experienced a momentous chapter in its history– an inflection point if you will.
The peaceful transfer of power from mother to son has been quite extraordinary, made all the more remarkable an achievement in the face of such rampant republicanism and media hostility towards the institution of monarchy. Despite the odds, the official 10-day period of national mourning went exceptionally smoothly. It could have been aided by major broadcasters such as the BBC devoting more of their airtime schedules to covering events, but with great challenges come even greater opportunities!
Okay, okay, I’m being sarcastic. I hope that is still allowed?
I am not trivialising the historic significance to the UK, nor the depth of sadness and sense of loss so many have felt at the Queen’s passing.
However, the past fortnight or so has offered a valuable insight into the soul of contemporary Britain, which has partly played out on social media– as so much public discourse does nowadays. The populace has been mesmerised by the fairy tale of the last fortnight, escaping the realities of a cost-of-living crisis engulfing Britain.
“I’m not a Royalist, but…” has been the frequently used precursor text to an online post or comment expressing outrage/ offence that some other people dare question the existence of the monarchy, or the colonial past that brought it to its present-day fortunes. It has seemingly become the new version of “I’m not racist, but…”
Wittingly or not, many have engaged in the stifling of open debate and discourse.
Saying that something is disrespectful or shameful is a highly effective way of bullying someone into silence. It works: voices are cowered, plurality of expression is lost.
Corporate brands have felt compelled to not only convey their condolences, but to go out of their way to show us how respectful they are through a variety of measures, ranging from turning off the ‘beeps’ at supermarket checkouts to full closure of operations.
This led to #grievewatch ridicule online– a rare anchor of sanity in a sea of otherwise unquestioning deference. Many of us were at least savvy to brands jumping on the bandwagon. As YouGov polling made clear, most UK consumers felt brands were seeking to exploit a PR opportunity, rather than acting out of a sincere desire to pay tribute (as other Renovata blogs have argued, people sniff out inauthenticity and instead choose voices of genuine purpose).
I have spent the period since the announcement of the late Queen’s passing in a state of deep ambivalence. I dare now admit that I felt no connection to her whatsoever, though I understand that many did. I am ambivalent about the monarchy itself. However, what I think about it is irrelevant. What matters is that Britain’s political and constitutional arrangements can be freely debated in open discourse.
Right now, it doesn’t feel that is the case.
Don’t believe me? Go and ask the folks arrested in Edinburgh, Oxford and London for expressing opposition to the monarchy. Their dissent was quickly condemned: how could they do so at a time when a family is grieving its mother, it’s grandmother? I would agree with this view, had those folks made their protest outside a private family memorial service. But those events were public, funded by the taxpayer, and therefore open to scrutiny and peaceful protest.
We either believe in free speech or we don’t.
And who is to say what is tasteful or not? Whilst I personally felt no need to protest as that tiny minority did (as mentioned above, I am genuinely ambivalent), I sure as heck will defend their right to do so. A democracy tolerates dissent, or it ceases to be a democracy. Had those arrests taken place in Moscow, we would surely condemn them as evidence of Putin’s repressive regime.
Don’t mention the Brexit
In the past couple of weeks, deference and admiration have been forced down our throats as mandatory. I not only resent that, I find it deeply troubling. The online trolling has been as bad as it was on Brexit…
Remember Brexit? The thing that is hurting the UK? That which we cannot speak about?
Though some would use the cloak of COVID or the war in Ukraine to obscure the reality, Brexit is a disaster that is costing the UK. The Bank of England now puts the cost of voting to leave the EU at £440 million per week, or £727 per second. That is more than £143 billion and counting, as this helpful calculator shows.
Brexit isn’t working and yet, in our great democracy, curiously, neither of Britain’s main political parties can say so publicly. Hello Sir Keir Starmer, where are you?
As brilliant as he is, we shouldn’t rely on comedian Joe Lycett to provide opposition to the government. We do need those in Parliament to step up.
Brexit was meant to return freedoms to the UK, supposedly ‘surrendered’ to Brussels. Well, can we please have some free speech and political debate?
Where next for open debate?
Britain feels like it is sleep walking right now and I keep pinching myself to check that I am in fact awake. I’m bracing myself for some Orwellian twist in which new Prime Minister Liz Truss announces that, owing to its resounding success, the period of national mourning for the late Queen will be extended to Christmas. During this period, all political debate is to be paused. A new Bill will be introduced to Parliament which, if passed, will make it illegal to express opposition to the monarchy or Brexit.
Okay this is far-fetched, right? Except, apart from the legislation element, this scenario will play out in the mainstream media and on our social networking platforms: if we allow it to.
So I write this piece to do my part. You are welcome to disagree with some or all of what I write. But do not try to shame me into silence.
The United Kingdom is in a difficult moment in its history. If it is to overcome the challenges it faces, then it must face them head on. In a democracy, that can only be achieved through discourse and open debate, not through silencing the voices of those with ideas different to the mainstream.