Skip to content

A Tale of Two Funerals: Shifting Britishness

Updated Wednesday, 28th January 2015

How has British national identity changed over the last forty years?

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

The programme takes the examples of two public rituals to examine the ways in which British national identity has changed over the last forty years: the state funerals of Sir Winston Churchill in 1962 and Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

The interview is with:

  • Michael Ignatieff, writer and historian
  • Rosalind Brunt, fellow in Media Studies at Sheffield Hallam University
  • Bill Schwarz, reader in Cultural and Communications Studies, Goldsmiths College 

They individually discuss changing attitudes to tradition, monarchy, authority, the people and the media

Bill Schwarz: The only way that we can imagine other people in the community as being the same as us, is by sharing rituals. Those rituals can take place in the private domestic mode, and on occasion these private rituals are punctuated by larger public rituals, most of all those great family occasions of births, deaths, and marriage. Those are the moments when the theatre of a national community is most on display.

Michael lgnatieff : I think our identities are concentric, I mean we start with the person we love and then with our family, and then we go wider to the streets the neighbourhood.

Rosalind Brunt: I don't think there's one fixed identity of Britishness. I think there's a whole repository and stock of knowledge that we inherit as citizens of the country, but it is quite striking how much Britishness is gendered, is white, and is also English rather than the other nations that make up Britain.

Helen Madden: What can the funerals of two public figures, 30 years apart, tell us about British identity? Is Britishness fixed and unchanging, or is it fluid and shifting? Comparing these rituals, reveals changing attitudes to authority and tradition, to the people and the media, and to Britain's role in the world. Sir Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister during the Second World War, and seen as a great leader.

After the victory, he stood for election as a Conservative, but the British people voted in a Labour government.

Although he did lead a Conservative government from 1951 till 1955, he was by then old and ill. Later he suffered from a series of strokes. The public were waiting for news of his death for days. He was 90 years old.

Michael Ignatieff: Churchill both united the country, and also deeply divided it and the same people who loved him also hated him, that's what national symbols are - it's not a place where everybody falls down and worships, it's the site of an argument.

Flowers at Princess Diana's funeral Creative commons image Icon Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral / CC BY 2.0 under Creative-Commons license Flowers at Princess Diana's funeral.

Helen Madden: Like Churchill, at her death, Diana Princess of Wales, was a major public figure. She was engaged to Prince Charles, heir to the throne in 1981. Their wedding attracted global media coverage, but tension grew between the images of fairy-tale princess, and rebel.

Diana had two sons, but her unhappiness and the challenge she presented to the establishment, became public knowledge. She divorced Charles in 1996, and associated herself with various charitable causes, like Aids, and the homeless. She died in a car accident.

Bill Schwarz: At the time of the Churchill funeral in January 1965, Britain was unravelling I think you'd say. The empire was coming to an end, black immigration was already a presence within the British Isles, and causing some problems to authorities, both the Conservative government and then later the Labour government were very keen indeed to restrict black immigration. At the same time there were the first hesitant moves to accommodation of Europe with the EEC as they're called. So the moment when Winston Churchill died in 1965 is actually key structural moment as well as being a key symbolic moment, in the de-composition of Britain.

The unravelling Britain, the idea of Great Britain began to kind of unhinge with a most extraordinary impact on the white native domestic population. They were forced into the position - quite simply - of re-imagining who they were and having to create for themselves a new identity.

Rosalind Brunt: The Diana moment does show a shift. I think it is much more multi-cultural, it was much more involving of the people, there was a notion of the ‘People’s Princess’ although the ‘People’s Princess’ is rather a contradiction in terms,  a very British contradiction, of a sort of compromise, we'll never get rid of royalty but at least we can be a bit more democratic. So I think you saw very clearly that the people were the almost the subject of that Diana moment, so called.

Michael Ignatieff: The Churchill funeral was clearly the high mass of post war Englishness. It was the moment in which the English, and I say English - not Welsh, not Scottish, not British - but the English said "this is who we are, here is our warrior chieftain, and we are burying him, we are lamenting not only his death but what his life did to define us all".

Bill Schwarz: One can see the kind of the shell, the kind of symbol of Britishness in the Churchill funeral. It is remarkably traditional, in some ways it's even more traditional than the film footage of the Coronation 12 years earlier. But it is a ritual organised by the Anglican Church, around the Parliamentary leaders, the great in Westminster, and from the military. It is almost the old British Colonial order on display. It is exclusively white. It is, barring the sovereign, almost exclusively male, and there is a sense of witnessing here the old colonial order in this last moment.

Richard Crossman who was a kind of gossipy diarist of the age and also an esteemed Labour Cabinet Minister at the time when the funeral of Winston Churchill took place, having attended the service he wrote in the diaries:

But oh, what a faded declining establishment surrounded me, aged marshals, grey dreary ladies, decadent Marlborough's and Churchill's. It was a dying congregation gathered there. It felt like the end of an epoch, possibly even the end of a nation.

Rosalind Brunt: The Diana Moment was very striking just for the sheer mass of people, and you have to think - when do you see masses of people in a British context? Apart from the Remembrance Day ceremonies and Royal occasions, massness and crowds are usually identified with trouble, riots, fanatics abroad and so on. So I think it was it was just -for me - I just loved to see so many people.

Helen Madden: In the week between her sudden death and the funeral, there was heated public debate about the funeral arrangements. Different voices were heard.

Michael Ignatieff: It seems to me to be a symbolic battle in which the crowd, the media, the Prime Minister and the monarchy are all fighting to define the symbolic content of the event. The funeral which happens on Saturday is the net result of that battle. A moment of stillness in which everybody finally worked out what to do with this woman, and produced an event which astonished everybody because it miraculously managed to satisfy everybody -  it satisfied the crowd, it satisfied the Royal Family, it satisfied the Prime Minister, and it satisfied the media.

Helen Madden: Although the funeral may have appeared unconventional in some ways, in others tradition persisted. It's part of the ritual of state funerals for male members of the bereaved family to walk behind the coffin. Women travel separately.

Rosalind Brunt: I don't know if there was a breakdown in tradition because, after all, this was still a very traditional event. There was a gun carriage, there were soldiers - although the military presence was diminished - and it was much more a people’s festival, but it still had a great many elements of tradition.

Helen Madden: By 1997, there was an acknowledgement of social change. The family is openly recognised as being fragmented.

Bill Schwarz: The dominating motif during the ritual of Churchill's funeral service is the Commonwealth. All the official rhetoric around the death of Winston Churchill, used the term ‘The Commonwealth', and inside that notion is the idea that Britain is still the mother of nations, the mother of Parliament. And all of that is held together on the assumption that Britain and the empire is still in place. But of course Britain itself is internally divided at the time. It's not only that there's now a new significant black population, but of course there are distinct subordinate nationalities existing within Britain.

Rosalind Brunt: Popular culture was much more marked in this ritual than had been before, with Elton John at the funeral. The Princess had been seen as the ‘pop Princess’.

Diana memorial in Harrods Creative commons image Icon Osmotic Agent under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license Memorial to Princess Diana in Harrods.

Michael Ignatieff: The Diana Moment was ambiguous because in a sense it wasn't clear that it was a British event at all. That it wasn't a moment in defining British identity so much, as the relation of the whole globe to a certain new kind of celebrity made possible by the mass media.

Michael Ignatieff: I mean it was a very odd event because it was globally magnified by the media; you couldn't simply have your own emotion. You had your emotions and then you'd turn on the television watch a million other people have their emotions, and at the end of it you couldn't tell which emotions were yours.

Helen Madden: Churchill had planned every detail of his own funeral - the route, the procession, the tunes and the hymns. He called it 'Operation Hope Not'.

Although technology was different, the world’s media was also present in force in 1965. It was a global event in terms of politics, and communication.

Bill Schwarz: After the funeral service of Winston Churchill, Churchill's body was taken down the Thames. The London dockers, the Cockney's of East London, the backbone of a nation who had stuck to their jobs during the blitz and so forth, in honour to the memory of the great war leader, they tipped their cranes into the barge path with Churchill's body on it. And one can see that as a dramatic instance of a working class here, which was part of the Conservative nation, which imagined itself to be an organic part of the Conservative nation. English, proud of it, but deferential at the same time.

Rosalind Brunt: It was striking how many people who had been marginalised in a predominantly white society, actually saw the Princess as their Princess and in saying that, they were saying that they felt included by some of the things she seemed to represent.

We saw increasingly the people in the Mall and outside the Royal palaces say “we the nation” effectively want this, want the Queen back, want the flag up and so on. People were referring to themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a nation.

Michael Ignatieff: The core of the British identities is actually institutional. It's not made cycling through the mist and warm beer. But the Diana funeral persuades of another reality, which is that the people decide, well it's not so clear to me that the people do decide in matters that really matter.

Bill Schwarz: In 1965, despite these anxiety-producing, macro, large events like Europe and decolonisation, even immigration, it was by and large a certainty of what it was to be British. We can see in hindsight that maybe Richard Crossman was right, that this was the end of that moment of certainty and that as far as national identity was concerned, people had to reinvent themselves in rather dramatic ways.

Rosalind Brunt: There is a quite different tradition of Britishness from the Churchill one, of this island race. This island race has a notion of the British as constantly facing a threat from outside Britain, and we keep doing the same things and we keep preserving ourselves as this island of unique people who haven't been invaded since 1066. The alternative goes on much more about conflict within Britain that have led to change, the breaks in our history for instance, the Cromwellian Republic, we - sort of having a notion of monarchy as always existing - forget that their heads were chopped off in the 17th century. And the levellers and the Chartists and the suffragettes in the 20th Century, and the development of the trade unions and so on, all of which come out of conflict within Britain and of course now, and more recently, women's liberation sort of comes out of a certain conflict with men. So, that is, you can trace a quite different version of Britishness in talking about our island story.

Michael Ignatieff: I think British identity is more fragile now, for very good reasons. It's in difficulty because the centre wasn't representing the peripheries and the peripheries feel angry and left out and fed up, and condescended to in disdain. And when that happens, the identity that we share is bound to be fragmented. I mean, the bottom line of what I'm saying is that identity is not a big mystery, identity is political, and identity is institutional. If the institutions work, the identity will work.

Rosalind Brunt: Marx has a famous saying which, when I read the tabloids, I often think of – ‘the tradition of all the dead generations, weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living’. And I think we are weighed down by Britain’s past and it is very hard to push through that to an alternative tradition. 

Transcript taken from Defining Moments, 2000. 




Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?