Britain Standing United in Queues for the Queen Is an Exercise in Nationhood

The British are known for their national art of queueing which has been more than evident again.

4 min read
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Britain is in mourning. And every time you turn on the television you can see the endless queue of thousands of people ready to wait over 24 hours, braving the autumn chilly nights to “pay their respects” or “thank the Queen”. We are told, about 3,500 people are passing through the Westminister Hall each hour, and it is open 24 hours until Monday morning.


The British are known for their calm habit of patiently queueing, be it for the bus or at overcrowded tube stations at rush hour. And this national art of queueing has been more than evident again since the Queen’s casket was brought into the Westminster Hall on Thursday where she lies in state.

The droves of people lining up to see the Queen for the last time is being televised the world over and now it has famously come to be known as 'The Queue'.

Worth the Wait!


People of all ages, colour and nations have found a common bonhomie. Some who spent the long hours of slowly shuffling through the winding serpentine queue that has spread to about 10 miles now, said that the walk was made easy with new friendships struck on the way, bonding so strongly that they have invited each other for Christmas dinner in advance.

As a friend of mine who went through an eight-hour queue told me, he had carried a book to read during the wait, instead, he spent the entire time chatting with people and handing his chocolate bar to an elderly lady who was feeling a bit tired. But strangely, most people noticed the silence that befell on all of them as they neared the Westminster Hall.

My friend went on to narrate, “The first view from atop the staircase was a feeling of awe and shock. I never knew the Crown jewels would shine so bright. But as I walked down the stairs there was a feeling of sadness, loss and respect."


Beckham Doesn’t Bend the Queue

Some have even been coming to grieve their own departed loved ones or be part of a “once in a lifetime historical event”. And all have to part of that queue, be it the former Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband, or celebrity and former Footballer David Beckham.

In fact Beckham, who later admitted that he was offered the fast track route but refused it and instead, stood in line for 14 hours to pay his respect to the Queen. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern who is here for the funeral also went to pay her respects on Friday evening.

However, what is interesting is 'The Queue' was well planned by a team of crowd science experts and a professor from Cumbria who took care of every last detail including a live online checker, toilets and wristbands.

Planning The Line Up 

Prof Keith Still, from Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, who has been teaching and advising on crowd science for 30 years told the BBC that planning for something like 'The Queue' takes "decades" together. He has also reviewed plans and provided analysis for the Queen’s journey from Balmoral to Aberdeen.

Given that 200,000 people gathered for the Queen Mother, it was clear to him that the Queen who was so loved, and who reigned for so long there, would garner far larger numbers. “You always plan for what might arrive and then what does is five times or ten times of that," he says.

What is remarkable is how peacefully and calmly the queue has worked even in the Westminster Hall. There was, however, one incident of a man pushing people near the coffin, but the police immediately took him away.


Nostalgic Value of the Queen’s Last Journey

What is interesting to observe is that not all people in the queue owe allegiance to the monarchy. For those who do, it is a sense of commitment and obligation and personal grief. But for others there are various emotions involved.

As a young Pakistani-origin man told me he had come because his grandmother and father were very fond of the Queen and he wanted to pay his last respects for them too. In fact, quite a few people said the death of the Queen makes them think of the death of their own family members and others close to them.

“These people may grieve through the Queen, but not necessarily for the Queen. And then there are many whose presence in the Queen’s mourning crowds has pretty little to do with the Queen."

"They simply recognise that these are events of major significance. If the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace brings along spectators to view the spectacle, the changing of the monarch brings them along in spades. They want to be able to say: I was there. I am part of history,” writes Stephen Reicher, Professor of Psychology at the University of St Andrews.

A Nation Swelling With Solidarity 

Significantly, he adds, “What we are seeing in Britain right now – and what makes the nature and narratives of the mourning crowds so significant – is not just an expression of nationhood but an exercise in the making of nationhood. What makes this exercise so effective is that a loyalist and deferential version of Britishness is not simply imposed on us from the top. It draws on genuine and deep emotions among many millions of people – myself included. I was moved and saddened by the death of Elizabeth, not because I am a royalist but because it made me remember my own mother. And I felt for Harry, who arrived too late, just as I did, hearing she had died while on my way to see her.”

What we have seen this week, and will see until the burial on Monday, is the country’s two favourite rituals – pageantry and queueing. While the ordinary people are coming prepared with food, sleeping bags, chairs and books, by the time they reach the hall they are only carrying an odd totebag, their possessions dematerialised.

Then they arrive at the top of the steps to take in the awe-inspiring grandeur of the 11th-century hall with the Queen’s coffin, draped in the royal standard and with the Crown and mace on top, perched on the purple catafalque, there was no better place to feel part of history.

(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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