openDemocracyUK: Opinion

On Prince Philip’s death, the government misunderstands the national mood

The establishment wants to see off summer revolts with a new ‘Diana moment’, but it won’t succeed

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
12 April 2021, 10.51am
Like the royals, hundreds of thousands of families have this year said goodbye to a loved one
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SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

The past year has been a massacre of nonagenarians. Goaded by the right-wing press, the government has repeatedly put business balance sheets over frail lives: Eat Out to Help Out, Christmas easing and delayed lockdowns.

My colleague Mary lives in London’s ‘COVID Triangle’. Every day, her neighbours file from their East End homes, onto the overcrowded Central Line, and put their lives at risk for minimum-wage service jobs.

Many – like Mary – will have said their final goodbye to grandparents over FaceTime, and attended funerals on Zoom. Many will have felt the virus choke up their lungs. All will have heard the sirens.

This morning, their path into the Tube was narrowed: Transport for London had erected a sign, mourning the death, at 99, of Philip Mountbatten-Windsor.

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At the start of the weekend, it was Prince Charles who led the tributes, hoping his mourning would obscure the memory of him taking his own COVID the length of the country so he could convalesce in his holiday home.

By Sunday night, it was Prince Andrew’s turn. I probably wouldn’t be allowing the media to broadcast my whereabouts to the world, were I wanted for questioning by US prosecutors. But what do I know?

“We’ve lost almost the grandfather of the nation,” he told us.

But the thing is, we haven’t.

When nonagenarians have been sacrificed to the gods of the market, a 99-year-old dying doesn’t feel more tragic than every other death

As broadcasters beamed their sycophancy, viewers enacted another ritual, the great British switch off. Coverage of Prince Philip’s death on BBC One – presumably planned out years ago – brought an average of just 2.4 million viewers between 7pm and 11pm, down from 2.56 million in the same slot the previous week. BBC Two showed the same programme, and saw its audience fall by 64% from the previous week.

During the same four-hour period, the number of people watching ITV prostrate itself before the crown averaged out at 1.34 million. The equivalent the previous week was 3.4 million. Those who did keep the telly on preferred Channel 4, with 4.2 million people watching ‘Gogglebox’, which, for those of you outside the UK, is a work of post-modern genius following families as they themselves watch and comment on telly. It’ll be fascinating to see what its stars have to say about the royal coverage. I imagine they won’t be enthralled.

Of course there are people who follow every toss and turn of the royal soap opera. Most people in Britain – and particularly in England – are instinctively royalists. But it does feel like officialdom has misjudged the national mood, if there is such a thing. Though increasingly, with audiences fracturing across mediums and platforms, there isn’t.

A year ago, almost to the day, the Queen gave her pandemic speech as the government tried to lure the country into a COVID nationalism trap, but realised Boris Johnson didn’t have the gravitas. “We’ll meet again,” she told us, in a line that would echo through the year. She mastered rhetoric long ago.

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But it didn’t really work. Rage at the Dominic Cummings affair, the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and COVID-cronyism (a term we believe openDemocracy invented) swept over the government. If it weren’t for a flaccid Labour leader, the fury could have capsized Johnson.

The establishment was temporarily saved by a different British institution; the NHS took control of the vaccine roll-out. The reassuring hands of tens of thousands of nurses got a grip of the situation, and the polls bounced.

But the ruling class is clever enough to understand that a year of lockdown, sickness and death means an ocean of pent-up energy. ‘Kill the Bill’ protests across England and riots in Northern Ireland are likely to just be the start of a long, hot summer of post-lockdown protests.

And so for them, Philip’s death was timely. It provides, they seem to hope, an official outlet for grief, a space to construct a national moment where we can all cry together and mourn together and then move on; a symbolic end to a disastrous year and a chance to unite with those who chose to risk our actual grandparents’ lives for the sake of their donor’s profits.

But it seems that they’ve misjudged it. Of course every death is a tragedy, but in a year that nonagenarians have been sacrificed to the gods of the market, a 99-year-old dying in comfort doesn’t feel any more tragic than every other death. Where are the John Lewis banner adverts for everyone else’s grandparents? Where is the week of mourning for the country?

The same ruling class has got this wrong before: they tried to downplay the death of Diana, and faced a revolt. They tried to enforce a victory parade after WWI, and faced off a revolution. It doesn't surprise me much that a group of people whose defining childhood experience was being sent to boarding school doesn’t really have a feel for this sort of thing.

At some point in the coming days, the UK will pass 150,000 deaths with COVID on the certificate. Each of those lives was special and important. And Philip – equally special, equally important, but no more so – wasn’t a metaphor for any of them. When this is over, we do need to grieve as a nation. But we also need to be able to feel our anger, and direct it at those who deserve it.

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