The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II brought together global heads of state and senior politicians. Duncan Bartlett praises the dignity of the event, and also highlights certain political elements at play
While she was not a political figure, the late Queen Elizabeth II – who died on September 8 – was a person of huge international significance, immensely respected for her skills in diplomacy.
The daunting task of handling the invitations and seating plan for the Queen’s funeral on September 19 fell to her representative, Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk. As well as a huge tactical undertaking, this also involved diplomatic dexterity and the Duke consulted with experts on Asia to avoid inflaming existing tensions between nations.
Particular care was taken to find suitable places at the funeral service for the representatives of India and Pakistan.
Pakistan’s prime minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif sat in a different part of Westminster Abbey from India’s president Droupadi Murmu. The previous night, they had both attended a reception hosted by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace.
For the emperor and empress of Japan, the Queen’s state funeral was their first international trip since they ascended the throne three years ago. According to purity laws laid down by Japan’s Shinto religion, emperors should not attend funerals apart from those of their own parents, although in recent years, some exceptions have been made.
As he departed for London, Emperor Naruhito issued a statement, in which he recalled friendly meetings with the Queen while he was studying at Oxford University.
‘From my heart, I declare my gratitude and esteem for her many achievements and contributions,’ he said.
During the service in Westminster Abbey, the emperor sat near Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah and behind the King and Queen of Jordan.
The Chinese leader Xi Jinping chose not to attend the Queen’s funeral, even though the previous week he had left China on an official trip to Central Asia, where he met President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
China was instead represented by the vice president, Wang Qishan, who sat in a different part of the church from the Japanese emperor and wore a face mask throughout the service.
Some national leaders clearly saw political value in visiting the UK for the state funeral. For example, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said he hoped his visit would help ‘strengthen solidarity with partner countries that share core values and expand the groundwork for economic diplomacy’.
At the Buckingham Palace reception, President Yoon greeted Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss and also spoke with US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.
President Yoon said the Queen ‘had a strong belief in the cause of human freedom and left great legacies of dignity’. South Korea transitioned from military rule to multi-party democracy during the Queen’s lifetime.
Mr Yoon also greeted Japanese Emperor Naruhito and his wife at the royal reception, the president’s office said, but there was no meaningful dialogue between the two leaders.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen did not travel to London for the funeral but she issued a statement saying: ‘Taiwan and the United Kingdom are united in their gratitude for the Queen’s lifelong contribution to world peace and prosperity. Taiwan will also work with the United Kingdom to continue to work hard for common ideals and values.’
This underlined the connection between Taiwan and the UK as liberal democracies. Although Taiwan is not officially recognised as a country by Great Britain – and does not have a London embassy – its diplomatic office overlooks Buckingham Palace.
Away from the funeral, there was also a political element to some of the messages about the Queen shared by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. One person said: ‘She helped and loved the people.’ Mourners reminisced about days of relative freedom in Hong Kong, before China imposed its draconian national security legislation in 2020.
Hong Kong was under British colonial rule until 1997. During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the monarch visited the city twice: in 1975 and then again in 1986, two years after the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed.
Hong Kongers often called the Queen ‘boss lady’ and many attributed the city’s welfare policies, such as public housing and public schools, to the colonial government.
Despite changing attitudes towards the monarchy in the Commonwealth, the Queen’s passing was particularly deeply felt in one Commonwealth country: Papua New Guinea. ‘She was the anchor of our Commonwealth, and we fondly call her “Mama Queen”,’ said Prime Minister James Marape.
The day after the Queen died, a proclamation ceremony was held outside the parliament in Papua New Guinea’s capital city of Port Moresby at around 7am, signifying the ascension of King Charles III.
One of the most important parts of the Queen’s funeral service in Westminster Abbey was a passage from the New Testament of the Bible. This was read by the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Patricia Scotland, who met the Queen on numerous occasions.
Outside the church, Baroness Scotland said: ‘I will always be grateful for her warmth and kindness to me. Our interactions were a delight, and it was wonderful to see her passion and animation whenever discussing anything relating to the Commonwealth. Her long years of interaction and partnership with generations of world leaders and their people, particularly the young, gave her extraordinary insight, which brought evermore life and meaning to her service.’
She added: ‘I will miss her greatly, the Commonwealth will miss her greatly, and the world will miss her greatly. We will never see her like again.’
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs