Editor’s Note: Catherine Mayer is the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party in the UK. She is the author of four books, including Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death which she co-wrote with her mother after both women were widowed within weeks of each other at the start of the pandemic. Based in London, Catherine has spent more than three decades as a journalist. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
My husband Andy Gill was a musician’s musician, not a household name, but influential. Last year, as he lay in an intensive care unit, I sat with members of his band Gang of Four as they prepared a statement for release after his death. The statement would trigger an insistency of calls and messages: from friends, shocked by the headlines before I could warn them, reporters demanding quotes and, on my first morning of widowhood, an inconsolable fan, who somehow obtained my private number.
I remembered that fan as I watched mourners arrive at Buckingham Palace to lay flowers for Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, whose death was announced Friday. My thoughts were also with the new widow whose quiet sorrow already dominated global news. The grief that attaches to public figures is no less real for distance. Public lives provide markers and milestones for others, and few more so than the Queen and her consort, who have spent more than seven decades in the public eye.
Whatever your views on the monarchy, the expectation that its senior royals should publicly share their most profound moments seems a high price for the uncertain privilege inflicted on them by birth or marriage. The Queen has always modeled one response to this situation – seen, but rarely heard, her feelings and opinions jealously guarded. Shortly she is to face TV cameras to talk about the worst thing that has ever happened to her. There is a poignancy to this most reserved of women being forced to grieve in public. There might also be, in sharply polarized responses to the unfurling pageantry, an intimation of mortality for the constitutional monarchy she has headed for 69 years.
As a journalist, I have studied this strange institution, routinely written off as a tourist attraction, but in reality deeply intertwined with the other institutions of the British state. I’m looking now at the printed booklet I took home from a state banquet held for the President of Mexico in 2009, among my fellow guests then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a swathe of cabinet and senior members of government, together with leaders of opposition parties David Cameron and Nick Clegg, heads of the military and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, plus business bigwigs from sectors including oil and defense, all the men gussied up in white tie and tails or dress uniform. We dined on poached halibut and beef tenderloin, but the main item on the menu was the business of elite networking. This is how power perpetuates, not only by fiat but through the access and opportunities closed off to the vast majority. Six years later, I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party to wrest open the doors to the clubs and stacked systems my reporting had allowed me to observe and understand.
The monarchy is the ultimate exclusive club, the sovereign born to reign over subjects, not citizens, hardly the most obvious of qualifications for performing the key role of a head of state: to unify. The Queen has nevertheless largely succeeded in this function, popular and, in decade after decade and poll after poll, trusted, rarely faltering but for a few famous missteps, her delays in leading public mourning for the dead after a mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales and, later, for her daughter-in-law Diana. Now, at a time of vast and untapped grief – the Covid death toll in the UK, according to government figures, stands just shy of 150,000 (the highest in Europe) – she must negotiate her most delicate task to date, ensuring that the ceremonials for her husband acknowledge and pay respect to those other experiences. The choreography must adhere to Covid restrictions. It must seem proportionate.
There are already signs of failure in this last regard, though the responsibility for this lies elsewhere. When the BBC and British TV network ITV swung into their pre-arranged responses to Philip’s death, clearing their schedules for reverential tributes to him, they made few concessions to the context of wider loss or the impact on a locked-down population of postponing comfort viewing such as MasterChef. My mother, herself a recent widow and inclined to empathize with the Queen, instead vented about the disruption. Television is her only evening companion since my stepfather died, and she is far from unique in this. Complaints from viewers were of sufficient volume to prompt the BBC to create a dedicated form on its website to register their protests. Twitter seethed.
Its fury is in part a function of algorithms and architecture. Social media amplifies harsh responses. Not everyone who railed against the wall-to-wall coverage or metaphorically danced on the new-dug grave is implacably opposed to the monarchy. Yet other factors signal existential danger for the House of Windsor. The current constitutional arrangements owe their longevity in part to the weaknesses of old parties and politics – and this is also why, for me, the British republican movement must explicitly recognize the need for much wider and deeper change than merely replacing a hereditary head of state with an elected one. A legislature too feeble to reform itself by removing the right of 92 aristocrats to sit in the upper chamber or to make itself more representative by introducing a fairer voting system is hardly sufficiently robust or thoughtful to reshape the unwritten constitution for the benefit of all. Moreover, the impulses of the old parties reflexively lead in the wrong direction, guided by a desire to solidify power rather than share it. Yet this same avidity also means that if public opinion shifts significantly towards republicanism, vote-hungry politicians will be the first to jump on that tumbrel.
As recently as 2015 when I published my biography of Prince Charles, I believed such a scenario to be far in the future. Although the heir to the throne will never match the popular appeal of his mother, I imagined that public sympathy for the personal loss that must precede his coronation would tide him over a reign that, at his age, would be transitional, an interlude before the ascendancy of a glossier generation. This analysis seemed sound as the first two seasons of The Crown added luster to the global brand and humanized key players.
Then came a perfect storm, its least significant component the tonal shift in The Crown, which, as it approaches the modern age, is sliding into delicious caricature. The one-two punch of revelations about Prince Andrew’s profound involvement with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the fracturing of the idea that the royals would easily absorb Meghan Markle into their ranks further rewrote the narrative and highlighted, too, a new frailty to an institution that could neither effectively manage its media operations nor its problematic family members. It wasn’t that the royals had ever been beyond reproach, but there is more than a step-change between the serial marital breakdowns reported by tabloids and the apparent complicity of the palace in shielding Prince Andrew from an investigation into allegations of the trafficking and abuse of underage girls; more than a step-change between Prince Philip’s famous “gaffes” and suggestions of systemic racism so toxic that a mixed-race royal bride was driven to suicidal ideation. That these issues are playing out against a landscape of inequality illuminated and deepened by the pandemic increases the volatility of the situation.
And so it falls to a freshly bereaved widow to use her platform for a reset. Public sympathy will be on her side, but time and wider trends are not.
For the first time, I wonder if I will live to witness the end of the monarchy. On the other hand, if the past year has taught me anything, it is that lives are more fragile than institutions. The Queen’s husband and mine are gone forever. They did once meet, at that state banquet. As Andy moved up the receiving line behind members of the Mexican delegation, Prince Philip spotted him and, noting his bleached hair, pale skin and green eyes, exclaimed “thank heavens, one of ours.”