With apologies to Le Maréchal Pierre Bosquet’s observation on the Charge of the Light Brigade, this seems an apt comment on today’s spectacle of the Queen’s funeral.
There is no question that it was spectacular, nor that the Queen had more than earned the best send-off her kingdom could muster. Nobody does pomp and ceremony like the British Establishment, and they did not disappoint. Even the weather played along, with sunshine breaking out as the coffin left Westminster Abbey.
The whole event went off with military precision. The planning had been impeccable; uniforms were vibrantly resplendent; Whitehall and the Mall provided ceremonial backdrops; nobody in the 3,000+ in the parade put a foot wrong; the crowds cheered and threw flowers. It was a global showcase of Britain at its best.
That said, other than wall-to-wall TV coverage from countless cameras, it could have been a re-run of Victoria’s funeral 120 years ago. It was the same gun carriage; they wore the same uniforms; the busbies, the ostrich feather, the plumed cavalry helmets had not changed since. Some—like those of the Tudor-era Beefeaters or the pre-Union Honourable Company of Archers are half a millennium old.
All of this makes for a spectacular show. And, though the day did not disappoint even the sceptics with its magnificence, the absence of anything indicating Britain was living in the 20th—let alone the 21st—century poses profound questions.
Such ceremonies were born of Empire, of the era when Britannia ruled the waves and the Great White Queen held dominion over a pink-painted fifth of all mankind. When you are the world leader in power and riches, it behoves you to demonstrate this with ceremonials befitting such status and which no-one else can match. It went with the cultural domination that justified fifty million people dominating a couple of billion.
That “white man’s burden” has been laid down and it is to the credit of the British state that it went more peaceably than the Roman or Russian empires. Reworking it into a Commonwealth of independent states was no mean achievement.
Though he has very big shoes to fill, Charles has shown, in his long apprenticeship, a shrewd humanity that will make a worthy king and may continue to be Head of State in 14 former colonies, as well as the UK. However, this latter role will decline with time, as will Britain’s pretence to still be a global power “punching above its weight”. The scale of conflict in which it could be decisive ended with the Falklands war four decades ago.
“It may not happen soon, or even quickly, but it will happen in my lifetime.”—Jacinda Ardem, New Zealand PM on Laura Kuenssberg on New Zealand becoming a republic
So, if the ceremonial brilliance of today is to be maintained, it will only be as a nostalgic memento as the past that is also a big tourist draw. Because what counts today—as it did when Victoria died—is wealth, and the power derived from it. Now in the 21st century, because Britain doesn’t dominate semiconductors like America or oil like Saudi Arabia, or manufacturing like China, or engineering like Germany.
All 67.9 million of Charles’ subjects can’t eat ceremony. Nor can they live from London’s finance business and a couple of world-class successes like Rolls-Royce. We are too big to live from dairy, Lego and wind turbines like Denmark or flowers and ocean towing like Netherlands.
Glory comes from power and power derives from wealth. A century ago, Britain had both. But repeating magnificent ceremonies from then does not regenerate either wealth or power. Britain may still stage impeccable ceremony, such as today. But if it can’t rediscover the glory of world-beating exports like those ships, locomotives, etc. of a century ago, it is in danger of becoming a Ruritanian museum piece.