Let’s talk about Queen Elizabeth II and the queue, or the line, or the wait, depending on the preferred English term. Is there anything more British than a long, shuffling stretch of humanity in which people maintain their place for 16 hours or more to pay respects to a late monarch?
I don’t know if the phenomenon last week could be seen from space, but it would fitting if it was. Organisers' warnings that the wait was exceeding 24 hours did not deter the joiners. Nothing could. Pictures of David Beckham, the former footballer, joining hairdressers and carpenters, demonstrated its everyman appeal. The gesture to the woman who reigned for 70 years was a testament to the significance of the British monarchy.
One of the attendees at Monday’s funeral is Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.
Mr Wang is travelling in spite of rocky relations between Britain and China. London and Beijing have fallen out of a “golden era” of ties that was designed to enhance trade and prosperity. The significance of his visit is that the Vice President is at the heart of power in Beijing and a crucial ally of President Xi Jinping. As far back as the Hong Kong handover 25 years ago, he has been a key interlocutor for Beijing.
Attempts were made to impose a ban by the speaker of the UK House of Commons on the Chinese delegation paying their respects during the queen’s lying in state in retaliation for sanctions on MPs. Despite this move, the arrival of Mr Wang shows Beijing’s desire to maintain ties with the UK. Sampling the broad atmosphere in the UK in the wake of the queen’s death, visitors will find it hard to escape the conclusion that this has been a period of impressive social unity.
Beijing watchers have reported that Mr Wang is a keen student of the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville and his analysis of why the French Revolution toppled the so-called "Ancien Regime". The analysis presented the revolution as the outcome of a deep division between the three estates of the clergy, nobility and the common people. In Britain this week, those three estates – if defined as the establishment, the middle class and the working class – have been in lockstep and united. At a time when a new government has come to power, there is a war in Europe and incomes are squeezed by an energy crisis, this is a precious moment for the UK to coalesce and preserve for as long as possible.
It is possible to ascribe the presence of several foreign dignitaries in the UK to the worldwide appeal that Queen Elizabeth had for decades. Think of the Andy Warhol portraits of the departed monarch, or her ability to sync with popular culture in instantly successful ways.
During the Queen's Platinum Jubilee earlier this summer, I attended an event in central London. It was a debate about how adventures of the fictional Pooh Bear or Paddington Bear held greater lessons for the impact of the Elizabethan era on Britain and the world. Arguments by distinguished academics revolved around the merits of the main characters as either archetypes of kindness within a group or as straight-talking migrants who are taken to the bosom of their hosts. Hours later, Queen Elizabeth herself knocked the whole thing into another dimension with a recorded skit with Paddington Bear, having afternoon tea and discussing marmalade sandwiches.
My own abiding tale of the late queen will probably be around her role in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I was stuck in a flat in the Syrian city of Aleppo, trapped by late-night artillery fire with a handful of other people. We had just enough internet signal to refresh Twitter feeds. A Brazilian in the room provided a running commentary. To us, it seemed that the octogenarian monarch had indeed parachuted into the Olympic Stadium strapped to James Bond. If she could do that, we would get through the shelling.
The final years of Queen Elizabeth’s seven decades on the throne were extraordinarily divisive both in the UK and around the world.
The test of western unity provided by the Ukraine war is still playing out. Before that, the re-emergence of protectionism started throwing handicaps on the global economy that are only now tipping the world into recession. Part of the reason that people are responding to the end of the era signalled by her death is that they recognise that she ruled at the high point of growing connection and globalisation. Moving backwards from globalisation, as the world has, is something with superficial appeal but the glamour and shaping of image that came about in the Elizabethan era tapped deep-seated desires for progress.
Why else should people travel from Dubai or Detroit to London to mark the reign of a monarch who wasn’t even their head of state? Travel they have, and many of them have joined the remarkable queue along the south bank of the Thames.
It has been suggested the whole legacy of Queen Elizabeth is a kind of imperial tidying-up exercise. In truth, she transcended the Empire and even her own quite typically aristocratic personality.
The powerful lessons of Queen Elizabeth’s reign were global and modernising. Paying respects to the symbol of that era is well worth the long line.