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Mourning the Queen, Britain has shown it still has a yearning for unity

Mourning the Queen, Britain has shown it still has a yearning for unity

Everyone will have their own overriding memory of the last 10 days but for me it is the silences. The quiet of the chapels as the coffin parties did their work; the stillness of Westminster Hall even as thousands trooped through it; the solidarity of the hush at football grounds and other events.

Others will recall the pageantry, the sight of the new King greeting well-wishers, The Queue or that surprising catch in their throat as they talked about the late Queen. Some were deeply affected, others wanted to participate in the biggest show in the world. Rich or poor, young or old, royalist or republican, all have shared this moment. There has been a national conversation.

Of course, for the indifferent or those less convinced about monarchy the last two weeks have been a source of irritation. Some with roots in former colonies worry the patriotic fervour will see the UK stepping back from addressing the injustices of empire. But the overwhelming emotions of this period seem to have been of reflection, sadness, introspection and the sense that there is, more often than not, a right way to behave.

For historians, the death of the Queen is an important punctuation mark — the closing of a chapter in national life, a moment to bookend a wider narrative. Most of us are too busy to surrender to such easy finalities, though for the older or more nostalgic this was also a moment of mourning for the lost ways of their own lives. Those seeking proof of Britain’s status will see it in the global leaders forsaking the UN General Assembly to flock to the funeral.

But for all, the period has been unsettling. It has been largely possible to carry on as normal but at the same time impossible to be unaware or not caught up in the larger event.

On Tuesday the normal backdrop to British life is restored. For citizens, the show is over. Yet as with more immediate grief, the coming months will serve as an episodic reminder of what has gone. The coins and notes will slowly start to change. We will continue to stumble over the national anthem for a while or forget that top barristers are no longer QCs. New passports will now refer to His Britannic Majesty.

Politics will return to its full ferocious fury. The new government of Liz Truss, stalled by the death of the Queen, will now seek to cram two weeks of momentum into four days before the remaining party conferences. We are moving deep into the electoral cycle (did we ever leave it?) and the need to draw sharp lines between the main parties becomes more pressing. A government behind in the polls, with a new leader keen to make her mark, is impatient to get on with things. Attention will return fully to the problems of the NHS, rail strikes and the cost of living.

Politics, rightly, must be about different views and policies, even including the future of the Crown. In tough economic times especially there are serious differences to debate. This debate and division is central to the democratic process enshrined in a constitutional monarchy.

But the events of the last 10 days might sound one small warning for the nation’s leaders. This is not a country which in the main craves more division, more radical upheaval, more opportunities to turn one community against another. After 15 years of political and economic shocks; after the pain of the Brexit struggles and the increasing vituperation and intolerance of political discourse, there is a sense that the once undemonstrative and stable UK has become an angry country. All the main parties have played their part in this.

Yet, as with the platinum jubilee, one senses among the mainstream of society a greater desire for unity, for a country which is — in the words of one former prime minister — “at ease with itself”.

As the waters close over the period of mourning, politicians might do well to note how much the population seems to welcome the moments of national unification which many identified with the Queen. The ceremony and protocol are all designed to draw out particular emotions, but they are emotions many wish to feel. It is a reminder that for all the political noise from both sides, many, many people like and want to show pride in their nation. (It is no accident that most Scottish Nationalists whose pride is in a different nation evince no desire to change their head of state).

As politics returns with a bang, leaders might reflect on the rewards for those who seem to offer again the prospect of unity and the hope of a less fatiguing and angry debate. Even in the hottest arguments, there is often among ordinary people a boulevard-wide common ground awaiting those who wish to find it. It is worth remembering that Boris Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done” was as much an appeal to end the fighting as it was to complete the process. For all the divisions around leaving the EU, Johnson’s positivism was key to his success.

The political guns will never grow silent and nor should they. It is beyond naive to think that the sharp drawing of dividing lines will cease. But the unity of great national moments is a reminder of a population which might be ready to respond to a leader who seems to promise a less furious future.

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