The Queue in contemporary British public life

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There is no doubt that millions of people in the UK genuinely grieved the death of Queen Elizabeth II and expressed this grief in multiple ways. One national occasion that deserves pause in this context is the Queue: The happenings and debates around a 5-mile line of people who waited for almost a whole day to pay their respects while the Queen’s coffin was lying in-state in Westminster. The Queue as a phenomenon illustrates complexity in British public life today.

The Queue as a symbolic gesture

The Queue is a national compass. For many, including the mainstream media, the Queue is a symbolic gesture of gratitude and recognition, of affirming people’s allegiance to the monarchy, and of national solidarity: A national spectacle with undertones of patriotism and grandeur but also a unifier of society across class, ethnicity, and race. But the Queue also illustrates divided perceptions. Parallel to those who hailed the Queue as a historical experience, or an almost religious one, infused with a sense of duty and belonging, are those who felt they were undergoing an out-of-body experience as they gazed at their queuing compatriots from afar in disbelief. Such critique found in the Queue is another avenue to be articulated.

  • For some of those watchers, at a time when the British government has struggled under the weight of post-pandemic recovery, rising energy prices, and record inflation, the Queue is a tool of compensation. People may be wondering how they will make ends meet but performing a mass act of hardship affirms the importance of sacrifice.
  • For some watchers, the Queue is sublimation: People may feel helpless about government policy but participating in the Queue puts them under the impression they have done something.
  • For some watchers, the Queue is subjugation: Going through the physical hardship of standing and walking for hours to pay respects to a departed royal is an act of servitude to the establishment.

The Queue as an event

The Queue is a twenty-first-century media event. People throughout history have queued for hours to say farewell to a departed leader, catch a glimpse of a pop culture icon, or perform a religious pilgrimage. All such events are a product of their own time, and the Queue in this regard is not exceptional.

Happening in 2022, the Queue reflects the dynamics of its time: The physical queue of people in urban public space engaged in an act of meditation on identity and being was live-streamed, covered continuously in both the media and social media, and had a dedicated weather forecast and government webpage. Even the name, the Queue, brings together all those layers to imply a manifold product that is physical, metaphysical and mediated at once.

The Queue as a finite experience

The Queue is an ephemera. The Queue is meant to be about mourning the death of the monarch. Will the public fixation with the Queue give way to mourning the death of the Queue? Not really. Although the Queue will be immortalized in books, media archives, and people’s memories that will be passed down through generations, the multifarious experience of the Queue is a fleeting one. Like other similar landmark moments in history, it is consciously experienced as temporary, and its finite temporality is part of the satisfaction of the experience.

There is no national consensus on the meaning of the Queue. This lack of consensus must be celebrated as a quiet reminder of diversity in the public sphere in the UK. But that the Queue evolved into becoming its own entity—sparking debate not about the Queen or the country but about the Queue itself—points to another aspect of public life in the twenty-first century: The Queue is an example of simulacra.

Dr Lina Khatib is a Research Associate at the Centre for Global Media and Communications and Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

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