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‘The Queen’s Funeral Presents Diplomatic Challenges like None Other’

Former diplomat and ambassador Alexandra Hall Hall reflects on whether the occasion of the monarch’s passing could present the opportunity for Britain to ease some international tensions

Members of the public file past the coffin of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, as it lies at rest on 12 September 2022. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA/Alamy

The Queen’s Funeral Presents Diplomatic Challenges like None Other

Former diplomat and ambassador Alexandra Hall Hall reflects on whether the occasion of the monarch’s passing could present the opportunity for Britain to ease some international tensions

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All big family gatherings – weddings, christenings, funerals – can be fraught occasions. Organisers agonise over who to invite, whether to include divorced, estranged or disgraced family members, the seating plan, the songs and readings, who should deliver speeches, what to wear, and how to strike the right balance between solemnity and celebration. But the Queen’s funeral presents diplomatic challenges like none other. 

For one, while most families are allowed to grieve in private, given the constitutional significance of the Queen’s passing, every event is being broadcast live. The body language and facial expressions of every person in attendance is watched, for clues about how they feel, both internally, and towards each other. While mourning the death of the head of their family, the members of the Royal Family are also expected to articulate their feelings in public, through speeches, walkabouts and interactions with the public. 

For King Charles III, the pressure must be particularly intense, as he grapples with the challenges of his personal grief and new public role, as head of his family, the nation, and the Commonwealth. He has to strike the right balance between paying tribute to his mother, and pledging to continue her legacy of service to the country; respecting the tradition he has inherited, while acknowledging the changing times and world in which we live.  

There is also enormous pressure on the new Government, sworn in only days before the Queen’s death. The Prime Minister, Liz Truss, had expected to spend her first few weeks in office dealing with the cost of living crisis. She now has to switch all her attention to overseeing the events around the passing of the Queen, and the introduction of the new monarch, with all her ministers also only just settling into their new roles. Like King Charles, Truss also faces intense public scrutiny on how she handles this moment.  

So far, I believe they’ve risen to the public occasion pretty well. The Royal Family and the Government have, after all, been planning for this moment for many years, under the rubric of ‘Operation London Bridge’. The many ceremonies which have already taken place to announce the Queen’s death, pay tribute to her legacy, proclaim her successor, and allow members of the public to pay their respects have been beautiful and stately. 

I generally dislike the British sense of exceptionalism, but in this area, I believe Britain genuinely does outshine every other country on the planet in its ability to conduct such events, drawing on its rich traditions and history. I am confident that the pageantry for the ceremonies still to come will be equally impressive.

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I feel the real risk may be in the other direction – that we overdose on the pageantry. Already, the blanket media coverage, hushed, fawning tones of much of the commentary and the cancelation of many events feels a bit much. The rest of the world has not stopped turning because of the death of the Queen. The business of life must go on. Other important events merit attention, such as the evolving situation in Ukraine. 

The government must take particular care not to be seen to be exploiting the occasion to divert attention away from the cost-of-living crisis, or to evade scrutiny of its policy decisions. 

The other issue is that while many feel a genuine sense of sorrow at the Queen’s passing, and gratitude and respect for her years of service, not everyone shares the same degree of royal reverence. I am no sentimental, ardent, royalist myself. I believe it is entirely legitimate to consider the role of the Monarchy in our political system going forward. 

It is therefore deeply disturbing to learn that the police have been arresting some people for carrying signs expressing their opposition to the Monarchy. This is not the expected behaviour of a democracy, where freedom of expression and speech are supposed to be guaranteed. Far from shoring up support for the Monarchy, such heavy handed policing may have the opposite effect. 

I am sure there will also be growing momentum in some countries overseas to move away from having the British Monarch as their head of state. The Queen never tried to intervene in such discussions overseas. I can’t believe it is healthy for the Government to suppress such discussions at home.

However, the bigger challenge is the diplomatic one behind the scenes.  

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For the Queen’s passing is a global moment, and heads of state and government from around the world are expected to attend. With space limited at Westminster Abbey for the funeral, how will the Government decide which ones to invite, and which ones to exclude, without causing offence? Is every country invited to send a representative or only those with whom we have diplomatic relations? 

Last week I heard from senior European diplomats based in London that they had been told that they were each being allowed to invite just two representatives – their head of state, plus one; and/or their head of government, plus one. I can imagine there are some difficult conversations and jostling taking place in some capitals where the heads of state and government are political rivals. 

Some countries, which have a particularly close relationship with the UK, may also grate at the restricted numbers. There is no space for former heads of state, or the staff, advisors or other members of the usual entourage who accompany foreign heads of state. This means that even the US is only allowed two guests, expected to be President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, excluding former presidents such as Donald Trump, who had reportedly been agitating to be invited. 

I heard that countries headed by royal families are being allowed to send a few more representatives. But some monarchies will be quite difficult to handle, either because of their own personalities or the controversial nature of their regimes – the Kingdoms of Thailand and Saudi Arabia spring to mind. Will they behave themselves?

Then there is the seating plan to consider. Does a head of state who has been in power for years, despite questions over their democratic legitimacy or record in office, take precedence over a newer, democratically elected head of state? Do bigger countries take precedence over smaller countries? Does it go by alphabetical order or geographical proximity, or the current state of our relations? What if that means foes end up sitting next to each other? Will they behave or demand to be reseated?

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According to various news reports, visiting heads of state will be able to attend the lying-in-state of the Queen’s body and sign a condolence book at Lancaster House after the funeral. While at Lancaster House, foreign leaders will also be able to deliver a tribute to the Queen lasting up to three minutes, which will be recorded for the media. Having attended countless diplomatic events, I am certain that some dignitaries will speak for well over their allotted time. Many may also chafe at being required to wait for hours while others speak before them, or prefer to use some of their time here to organize bilateral meetings with their counterparts. This will also take extensive effort to manage. 

Finally, with so many dignitaries in town, security will be an absolute nightmare.

According to leaked documents, British embassies have apparently been instructed to tell their host governments that foreign dignitaries should travel by commercial planes to London, rather than private jet or helicopter, due to space and logistical constraints at our airports. Even more extraordinarily, foreign dignitaries are being asked to travel by bus, not private car, to the funeral. If that is true, I simply cannot imagine how that will be acceptable to the Secret Service which protects the US President, let alone all the other heads of state and government in attendance. 

Security will be particularly acute right now, given the current state of the war in Ukraine and questions over whether Vladimir Putin might launch more aggressive attacks to counteract the sense of Russian weakness. But, so many heads of state in one place will be an irresistible target for many. 

The logistics of coordinating this entire event are, in fact, horrendous. 

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Months or even years of planning go into the annual UN General Assembly or other global events attended by heads of government, usually according to formulas which have become established over many years. The UK will be trying to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime royal equivalent, in under two weeks, where any misstep will be broadcast around the world. Spare a thought for the officials working behind the scenes. 

Nevertheless, just as funerals are often an opportunity for reconciliation in private families, so the Queen’s funeral is also an opportunity for reconciliation both within the UK, and between the UK and our allies.   

I am not naïve enough to think that this moment will be enough to overcome all the controversies of recent years. There has already been considerable nastiness in the media directed towards the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. There has been sharp commentary about which politician has given the best speech or might have done a better job in presiding over this moment. Plenty have noted the gracious and generous tributes to the Queen given by foreign leaders, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France, and contrasted this with the polarising rhetoric of Liz Truss towards many EU leaders, including Macron himself. 

Further rows with the EU, and potentially the US, over Northern Ireland; or with Scotland over independence, lie waiting in the wings

Nevertheless, the occasion does at least provide a chance to dial-down some of the tensions.

Setting an example, Prince William and Prince Harry, and their wives, were able to put aside their personal differences, to present a show of unity when they walked outside Windsor castle earlier this week. Britain’s political leaders stood alongside each other at the formal event of accession of the King, in a display of common respect for the institutions of our country. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made moving remarks alongside Prime Minister Truss, despite their well known animosity towards each other.

The tributes pouring in from around the world to the Queen are a reminder of the UK’s strong network of friends and allies. 

One senior European diplomat told me she thought Macron’s warm words towards the UK, and decision to dim the lights of the Eiffel Tower in the Queen’s memory, were in fact a very deliberate olive branch to the new British Government. The question is: will our new Government take this opportunity? 

I sometimes worry that the old cliché that ‘there is more that binds us than divides us’ may no longer be true. But I would like to be proven wrong.

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