What constitutes a national atmosphere? An expert explains the mood surrounding the Queen’s death

A national mood, atmosphere, community spirit, a feeling in the air. There are many ways people can describe the collective sense of an intangible that occurs around major events. My research examines what constitutes a national atmosphere. The events surrounding the Queen’s death have given this work more meaning than I expected.

We feel part of a national atmosphere when public feelings are more intense than in everyday life. They encompass our own emotions as well as the energies and feelings that flow between us and other people.

Perhaps we feel carried away by the power and rhythms of the atmosphere. In fact, an atmosphere can sometimes take on a life of its own. National atmospheres can be positive and jubilant or negative and frightening, and they have different resonances for different people.

The prevailing national atmosphere surrounding the Queen’s death was solemn and subdued. That mood was formed from thousands of tiny elements: flags flying at half-staff, black-and-white images of the Queen in shop windows and on websites, military uniforms, and announcements by companies on how they planned to celebrate the day of the funeral.

Because it’s a national atmosphere, we don’t have to be in London or Windsor to experience it. Across Britain, condolence books appeared in supermarkets, estate agents replaced pictures of houses with pictures of the Queen and school events were cancelled. Internationally, coverage of the funeral was broadcast on television and on public screens in city squares.

The national mood, in a train station.
Electric Egg / Shutterstock

National atmospheres are created through a combination of the rehearsed and the spontaneous. King Charles’ visits to all countries of the United Kingdom before the funeral were carefully choreographed, while mourners left jam sandwiches in tribute to the Queen were an unexpected touch.

A very different public mood took hold during the London 2012 Olympics, when people apparently bottled up the joyous vibe and attempted to sell it on eBay for £50. On the other hand, a somber national mood prevailed during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least in the early days, breaking lockdown rules was socially unacceptable and not “in the spirit” of national sentiment.

What a national atmosphere means

These moments of coming together are politically interesting. They tell us something about our society’s priorities and can be turning points as new ideas about community and the future emerge.

The line of people who waited in line for whole days to see the Queen in state was a memorable element of this national event. The queue was carefully planned and the public could watch it live on the BBC as well as online.

Looking at the footage, many of the visitors were women, and early analysis suggests that most were more conservative voters who had been in favor of staying in Europe. We may wonder which of many different things these people are mourning.

A queue of people on London's South Bank at night, with the illuminated Palace of Westminster across the river.
The queue will remain an iconic symbol of the national atmosphere even after the Queen’s death.
Danny Lawson / PA Pictures

People queuing had to pass several major national and city landmarks, as well as those that remind us that London was once the “Heart of the Empire”. For example, the Thames Embankment system was developed in the 19th century at the height of British imperial power.

The queue also passed through the relatively new National COVID Memorial Wall for the hundreds of thousands who have died from COVID-19 in the UK. Perhaps some of the mourners mourned more than just the death of a sovereign.

A concrete wall covered with drawings of thousands of red hearts of various sizes, with bouquets of flowers lining them on the floor.
The COVID Memorial Wall, a reminder of a different national atmosphere.
Photo by Angharad Closs Stephens, author provided

national dissent

Although a national atmosphere seems to show a common feeling among people, it often also sparks resistance and disagreement. But the problem with increased statements of unity is that it becomes particularly difficult to challenge national sentiment.

American feminist philosopher Judith Butler noted that it is difficult to criticize the atmosphere of heightened nationalism that followed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In moments like this, dissent needs to take creative and unexpected forms, somehow finding ways to interrupt rather than spoil the mood.

After several anti-monarchy protesters were arrested at events related to the change of sovereignty, others demonstrated by holding up blank slips of paper in front of Parliament. Such a protest avoided voicing an opinion that might lead to an arrest, but still made her point clear.

The relatively calm mood following the Queen’s death provided a brief distraction from a summer of uncertainty for many. The UK experienced multiple heat waves, fears of soaring energy bills and food costs, and political upheaval. There was a feeling of seething dissatisfaction that could spill over at any moment.

The British government and monarchy hope that the current mood of mourning will continue. But public feelings rarely remain constant, and we all help shape them. While the government of the day can to some extent direct the national atmosphere, it can also find itself on the other side of the public mood as other ideas about community and the future emerge.

About Cindy Johnson

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