By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow
Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham
Queen Elizabeth II died on 8th September 2022, aged 96, after a 70 year reign. The media and the press quickly declared that the whole nation was in mourning and a chain of events doused in pageantry was set into motion. A period of 10 days of official national mourning was announced with the government issuing specific guidance for this. This guidance states that ‘National Mourning is a period of time for reflection in response to the demise of the Sovereign…’. Whilst the guidance specifies that ‘There is no expectation on the public or organisations to observe specific behaviours during the mourning period’ this was not implied through the media coverage, the pageantry and the national spending that the ensued after the death of the Queen. Yet despite the narrative of collective mourning, many were not mourning her loss, for many the monarchy represents inequalities, class difference and poverty. The pageantry of the Queens funeral, for many living in destitution, was a harsh reminder of this.
An important contextual point to highlight when considering this is that research indicates that at least a quarter of the UK now wants to abolish the monarchy and become a republic, and these numbers are growing in the young, with calls for an elected head of state on the rise.
However, the media coverage in the UK appeared skewed towards only positive views of the monarchy in this time and the news seemed biased when considering the reality of mixed feelings about a royal family in a country that is suffering from spiralling issues of poverty and destitution. Many were admonished for criticising the monarchy at this time, which raises questions of the freedom of speech in a country that claims to be built on democracy.
This context was, however, acknowledged by the media in other countries, An example of this can be seen when the New York Times published an article titled ‘The queen’s funeral will be paid for by British taxpayers’ which highlighted the conflicting issues of a country that is struggling financially but spending millions on a state funeral and its accompanying ceremony. This article was admonished by many of the UK media outlets, stating that they were ‘bashing Britain’. Yet upon closer critical consideration, the New York Times was highlighting an important contradiction that is underpinned by the contrast between the rich and the poor.
In light of these issues, some serious questions need to be raised about the foundations upon which democracy is built in the UK. This subtle, yet bias, steer when considering the monarchy needs to be recognised, which makes democracy and freedom of speech appear incredibly fragile.
The wealth and riches that were so evident from the events surrounding the Queen’s death all played out in the context of one of the worst cost of living crises in recent history and a rising problem of homelessness, with an estimated 66,000 Brits expected to be homeless by 2024. Against the backdrop of this bleak statistic Fire Fighters, who are publicly funded, handed out blankets to those standing in the 24 hour queue to see the Queen lying in state. Support for the homeless on the same streets does not seem to be mobilised so rapidly when temperatures plummet. Consideration must be given to the message that this conveys.
Another example of the view presented by the media is when a BBC reporter claimed that the energy crisis was “of course insignificant now, given the gravity of the situation” when news broke of the deteriorating health of the Queen. He has since claimed that his words were taken out of context and he was only referring to a speech to be made by Truss about the spiralling energy costs. However, some argue that the damage was already done, and that the speech was equally, if not more important for many living in poverty.
In my previous work in the third sector, I worked with many young families from incredibly low socio-economic backgrounds. They were trying to survive on a daily basis. Survival and living are distinctively different ways of life. I have seen first hand the very real fear that the next meal for you or your family may not be forthcoming, that the electricity and gas may be cut off, or that bailiffs may turn up to take away what is left of your sparse belongings.
This is not living, this is surviving.
Poverty is a reality for vast amounts of people in the UK. The fact that this is happening in a developed country poses some very serious questions as to the state of inequalities in UK society. When this is viewed in light of the death of the Queen some stark irregularities and inconsistencies can be drawn. Many food banks and schools closed on the day of the Queens funeral. This meant that many children did not get fed – they were going hungry as a funeral reported to have cost the tax payer over £8million played out on all television channels. Additionally, I don’t think I was the first to look at the sea of flowers outside Buckingham Palace and wonder how many families could have been supported if the Royal family had requested charitable donations instead of floral tributes that ended up being composted.
Despite all of this, the struggles of the nation were not portrayed and a balanced view was not given. An apparent assumption was made that everyone in the UK was in mourning, deeming challenging anything linked to the royal family problematic, including questioning how the lying in state, pageantry and funeral was being financed in the context of the spiralling cost of living crisis. Those that emphasised these contradictions were criticised and silenced. The death of the Queen highlighted the riches and status of the monarchy in bleak and very real contrast to the poorest in UK society.
This gave a very clear message to those living in destitution.
You are not equal. And you are not important.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.