United Kingdom

In the Queen’s queue, the journey matters as much as the destination

The writer is professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University and author of ‘Queueing for Beginners’

Queueing in this country is never just a matter of standing in line; we always think it tells us something about ourselves. A five-mile queue to see the Queen’s coffin is being celebrated as quintessentially British — but, like most self-flattering traditions, the UK’s view of itself as a nation of expert queuers is more recent than people think.

Only during the second world war, and just after it, did social commentators first notice our penchant for queueing. In his 1944 essay “The English People”, George Orwell praised “the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling, the willingness to form queues”. Three years later, the historian Ernest Barker commended English queuers for their knack “of ‘fitting in’ neatly on a little space”. 

Both Orwell and Barker conflate Britishness with Englishness. They assume a link between British democratic institutions and English traditions of fair play and civility. Queueing, for them, is essentially apolitical. The queue is organic, a series of semi-improvised, tacit understandings between strangers. Its self-regulating quality allows it to be co-opted by a certain strain of liberalism that prizes tolerance and tact as guarantors of social stability.

But queueing is always political, because its aim is to ration a scarce resource. During and after the war, queueing was a stressful activity, as people competed for essential items such as food and fuel. Far from being hailed as egalitarian, queues were often seen as inequitable. Working women, elderly people and mothers with babies thought them unfair because they were less able to queue for long periods. A Ministry of Information report worried that queueing might sap national morale, and warned that “peace talks are being fostered in queues”.

After the war, the Conservative leader Winston Churchill exploited these popular frustrations by identifying queues with the new Labour government. When bread was rationed in 1946, he declared that socialism meant queueing. And, in a 1950 election broadcast, he suggested that queues would become a permanent feature of British life, caricaturing the new Socialist dream as “no longer Utopia, but Queuetopia”.

For the next two decades, queueing became a symbol of national decline. Readers of The Times complained endlessly in its letters page about the long queues in banks and post offices. Since a queue forms when supply fails to match demand, its stubborn visibility in daily life was framed as a symptom of the “British disease” of poorly motivated workers and mediocre management.

Now, in a post-Thatcherite landscape transformed by technology and consumerism, queueing is both more efficiently organised and something the more affluent can opt out of by paying for special treatment, such as priority boarding. Only the poorest tend to stand in line for their money in banks or post offices; the premier customers are all online. We are right to celebrate queueing, because it is the most visibly fair way of managing demand for something that lots of people want. Nowadays, though, the rationing of scarce resources is rarely as equitable as it was in wartime.

Those who see the queue as a uniting national ritual find their theory confirmed in that long line of mostly calm, stoical, good-humoured people leading to Westminster Hall. This queue is not what retail experts call a “pain point”, to be suffered on the way to being served; it is a cultural phenomenon, an end in itself, a site of pilgrimage where the journey matters as much as the arrival. The mundane queues we experience every day rarely give us the same sense of purpose and belonging. They will remain tedious and unglamorous to stand in — which is why the line of Britons waiting to pay respects to their late Queen should be remembered as something different, and unique.

 

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