An empty title for Wootton Bassett can’t hide tragedy

With his usual fondness for the hammy, headline-grabbing gesture, the Prime Minister has announced that the town through which coffins of dead British servicemen have been borne over the past four years is to be given a title. Wootton Bassett will soon become Royal Wootton Bassett. The honour previously granted to Leamington Spa and Tunbridge Wells (for being visited by the royal family), to the county of Berkshire (for containing Windsor Castle) and to companies like Fortnum and Mason (for providing groceries to the gentry) will now be accorded to a small town in Wiltshire in recognition for its services to national mourning.

There has been a reaction of some bewilderment from those who live in the newly ennobled town. They are unsure as to what exactly becoming royal will mean. Some have modestly pointed out that there was nothing unusual, when the hearses of dead servicemen made their way down the High Street towards the mortuary, in people paying their respects. Quite a few people – including, I suspect, a number of those who serve or have served in the armed forces – may even find something distasteful in this celebrification of public grief.

The truth is the gesture of standing quietly by the road as bodies of servicemen and servicewomen are “repatriated” is a natural, civilised expression of respect, gratitude and sorrow. Similar gestures go on across the country as they are brought home and laid to rest, or at Remembrance Sunday services and charity events for Help for Heroes. When the repatriation route returns to RAF Brize Norton, it will no doubt be seen in other towns.

What made Wootton Bassett different, transforming it into a symbol of good, old-fashioned British virtue, is that at some point last year the press sniffed a story. What had previously been a quiet, personal expression of feeling quickly became a media event. The cameras were there to film every procession. Locals began to feel and behave as if their act of mourning was something rather special; they were the people who showed that Britain still cared about its brave soldiers.

There were stories of people travelling to the area to line the streets and make a day of it. Some had roadside picnics as they waited for the cortège to appear. A festival of caring had developed. The problem is that, when mourning becomes exhibitionistic, the focus shifts away from the person who has died fighting for his or her country to the emotional drama of those looking on. The bystanders become part of the story, heroes in their own right, weeping on behalf of their country. The more impersonal and media-aware an act of grief becomes, the less meaning it conveys.

For governments, public displays of sorrow at times of war provide a welcome distraction from the difficult questions which conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Iraq can raise. The armed forces become symbols of courage and moral strength, uncompromised by politics. When required, the monarchy can be relied upon to ratchet up sentimentality, having learned, with the death of the Diana, the power of mass emotion in Britain.

Conferring royal status on what the press likes to call the “humble town” of Wootton Bassett is a move which makes everyone feel warm inside: the Queen has shown she is touch with the ordinary people, the Prime Minister has flashed his caring side, and the people – who rather like to be reminded of their own innate decency – have been flattered by an easy, meaningless gesture.

It feels, strangely, like an act of cynicism. What of other mourners, other carers, other patriots? Do they deserve a royal warrant too? Or is it only when the media make a fuss about it all that a silly title is conferred? In this great, self-admiring circle of caring and sympathy – monarchy, government, and ordinary citizens – it is the real and repeated tragedy of young men and women dying in a bewildering, miserable conflict that is being lost.

Independent, Friday, 18 March 2011