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God save the Queue: how the wait to see the Queen’s coffin transformed people

People wait in line in Southwark Park, London, Friday 16 September.
‘The relentless focus on the Queue as a historic event in and of itself made the mere act of queuing seem ever more significant.’ People wait in line in Southwark Park, London, Friday 16 September. Photograph: Ian West/PA

A strange thing has happened since last week, when I wrote about how myself and other social psychologists were studying the crowds of people queueing to watch the ceremonials following the death of Queen Elizabeth – finding out the many reasons and motivations for taking part in this mass event. It seems the Queue itself – and what it supposedly tells us about the state of our nation – has become as big a story as the ceremonies. We stopped watching the pageantry and started watching ourselves watching the pageants.

This was just the start of a series of remarkable transformations. The size and behaviour of the crowds did not simply reflect the pre-existing state of the nation. Rather, through these crowds we saw a transformation in our desire to participate in the events, a transformation of relations between those in the crowd, and transformations in their relationship to the monarch, the monarchy and the state. A week is a long time, it seems, and not only in politics.

Two things immediately gripped the public imagination. The first was the sheer size of the queueing crowds. Some speculated it was the largest funeral crowd ever. Such a bold claim is hard to assess, but the answer is it probably wasn’t. Four million watched Pope John Paul II being laid to rest, 5 million watched Nasser’s funeral, up to 10 million the Ayatollah Khomeini’s. And 16 million were there for CN Annadurai, the chief minister of Madras, after he died in 1969. Moreover, in 1980 the queue to pay respects to the Russian singer Vladimir Vysotsky stretched fully 10km, from the Taganka theatre in Moscow to the cemetery where he was buried. But such details are beside the point. Simply by asking whether this is the biggest queue ever, a sense of exceptionalism is invoked.

Members of the public file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II
‘Those who stood in the hush of the hall told our research team how their senses were transformed, their emotions heightened.’ Photograph: Reuters

The second factor is also about exceptionalism. Time and again, queues, and this one in particular, have been described as quintessentially and uniquely British: polite, restrained and orderly, reflecting the timeless characteristics of our national identity. Like most supposedly “timeless” national phenomena, this isn’t actually accurate. The idea of the British as a nation of queuers dates back to the second world war. The government feared that food shortages, rationing and long queues would lead to social disorder – so there was a concerted propaganda drive to make orderly queueing into a national duty and a symbol of being British. Controlled crowds were not a reflection of “Britishness”. Rather “Britishness” was a device invoked to control the crowds.

Just as the funeral and other ceremonies people were waiting to witness are often described as “going back to time immemorial” but were actually invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the notion that the civility of British crowds attending those ceremonies likewise stretches back through the mists of time is a powerful piece of myth-making.

But the relentless focus on the Queue as a historic event in and of itself made the mere act of queueing seem ever more significant. More and more people wanted to join simply to be part of it. Day by day, as we talked to people, this became more prominent as a motive for attendance. Many who had been sitting at home with no thought of joining in, began to fear missing out on a little bit of immortality. So the crowd grew ever bigger, becoming ever more significant and thus attracting yet more people. The snowball rolled and grew faster and faster.

Once drawn to the crowd, another transformation occurred. The shared experience and common goals of those waiting together over long hours led to an emergent sense of shared identity. And that shared identity became the basis for the emergence of community. Strangers became friends. People began to talk, to share stories, to share sandwiches, even to develop intimacies. Such solidarity sustained people through the long march. Whatever the reason people joined the queue, the joy of human connection became a reason to stay in the crowd.

As the crowd progressed, as people drew close to Westminster Hall, and then, as they came into the presence of the coffin and crown, yet one more transformation occurred. The joyous and even raucous relationship of queuers to each other gave way to the relationship of each person to royalty. In the hush of the hall, each person stood alone in the presence of the Queen’s coffin and the meticulously choreographed precision of her attendants. Those who were there told our research team how their senses were transformed, their emotions heightened. Majesty – hitherto an abstract concept – has been made manifest. Such experiences reflect a prior identification with the monarchy. But collective experiences also create and intensify identification

Most of the discussion of the response to the Queen’s death has focused simply on what it tells us about ourselves as a society. But that is to miss the importance of how these events actively change people. We do not come out of the last 10 days as we went in. But that is the whole point of such ceremonials. They are technologies for engineering souls. And by investigating them, we gain crucial insights into how that process works.

  • Stephen Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an authority on crowd psychology

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