I write these reflections the day before the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II and the end of the period of mourning.
This time began and ended for me with two formal occasions, bringing into play the mixed emotions that have run throughout the past ten days.
On Sunday 11 September I went with the Chief Constable, the District Commander for Sheffield and my Chief Executive to hear the Proclamation of the new King’s Accession. This had been done nationally at St James’ Palace in London, then repeated across the country.
We gathered on the steps of the City Hall in Barker’s Pool, Sheffield. This was the South Yorkshire Proclamation, read by the High Sheriff. It recalled the death of the late Queen and proclaimed Prince Charles ‘our only lawful and rightful liege Lord Charles the Third…’ The ceremony concluded with three cheers for the King, led by the Lord Mayor and the singing of the national anthem, God save the King. Similar ceremonies were held in other towns across the county.
Then this Sunday, 18 September, the time of mourning concluded in South Yorkshire with a beautifully sung ‘Commemoration and Thanksgiving for the life of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second’ in Sheffield Cathedral. The gentle rhythms and simplicity of this evening service captured well the mood we were feeling on the night before what we knew would be the pomp and high ceremony of the state funeral the following day.
And as I am sure you realised, police from every force in the country were in the capital, including officers from South Yorkshire.
The oath of allegiance
In the week before the death of the Queen, I attended a police attestation ceremony. This is when new recruits are sworn in as police officers. Forty or so young men and women were just starting their careers and on this, their second day, they had put on their new uniforms and were about to receive their warrant cards. But first they had to swear allegiance to the monarch in the presence of a magistrate – and proud parents and partners.
Events were moving very swiftly for them. The day before they were civilian recruits. By the end of this evening, they were constables. Of course, their training had scarcely begun and the following day they were off to Sheffield Hallam University. They will spend the next three years doing police-related academic studies alongside on-the-job training. It’s quite demanding!
I am not and have never been a police officer, but in a previous life I shared this feature of their job: as an Anglican priest, I also had to swear an oath of allegiance each time I came to a new post. The oaths are very similar and because Elizabeth II was the monarch throughout my entire clerical working life, I said – if memory serves me well – seven or eight times: ‘I do solemnly and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law.’ Similarly, the new police recruits I saw also pledged to serve the Queen in the office of constable. The Recorder of Sheffield told me after the cathedral service that judges do the same.
But this group of trainees is unique. They will be among the last in the country for as far ahead as we can see, who will swear allegiance to a female head of state. From now on we must all break the habits of a lifetime: God save the King.
The police value their oath of allegiance to the monarch. They see this as an important symbol of their impartiality and ability to act with discretion and not at the behest of politicians. Yes, of course, they are subject to the law, which is made by Parliament, and the policies of the government with each Chief Constable being accountable to their elected Police and Crime Commissioner. But the police are operationally independent: they must uphold the law without fear or favour, resisting undue influence wherever it might come from. This is what the oath tells them.
In this respect British policing is very different from police forces in some other parts of the world.
A time to say ‘We got this wrong’
During the period of mourning, Nicola Mundy, a senior coroner for South Yorkshire, concluded the inquest into the death of Nargis Begum. Mrs Begum died after the car her husband was driving broke down and stopped in a live lane on the M1 where there is no hard shoulder – the stretch of motorway in South Yorkshire known as All Lane Running (ALR). She got out of the car and stood in front of it. A Mercedes smashed into their stationary car causing it to hit and kill Mrs Begum.
Many things have been said during this inquest about ALR and I hope that both the government and National Highways – the agency that looks after major roads and motorways – will think carefully about them. For the moment I note these.
First, the coroner concluded that the lack of a hard shoulder had contributed towards the death of Mrs Begum. This is the second time to my knowledge that a coroner has said this about deaths on this part of the M1 in our county. In any other circumstances we would expect the agency and the government to take note and remedy the safety hazard immediately; but the stakes here are so high. It would mean abandoning Smart motorways – the building programme is currently paused – and re-instating hard shoulders – at some cost.
Second, it became clear during the course of the inquest that National Highways understands very well that ALRs are more dangerous than a conventional motorway for anyone whose vehicle stops in a live lane. But because the extra lane, the overhead gantries regulating speeds and other technological solutions of the ALR increase safety in other respects, the increased risks to any stationary vehicle – a rare event – were on balance considered worth taking. The barrister representing Mrs Begum’s family asked: ‘For those unfortunate enough to use an ALR motorway and come to a stop in a live lane because there is no hard shoulder – that particular risk has been sacrificed for the reduction of the other risks?’ The Chief Executive of National Highways replied: ‘Yes. There is a balance of risks, I would agree.’
Third, it also transpired that 153 vehicles passed by Mrs Begum’s stranded car but didn’t report it because – one witness said – they believed that ALR motorways are under constant camera surveillance and the presence of the broken down vehicle would have been noticed and the lane closure initiated. But it was sixteen minutes before the vehicle was detected. This also contributed towards Mrs Begum’s death.
But it’s not just the fatalities that we should think about. While the inquest was taking place someone wrote to me about a near-miss experience they had had on this part of the M1. She said: ‘I too had an incident which could have ended in serious injury if not death.’ The reason was that she was driving in the nearside lane – what would be the hard shoulder on a conventional motorway – behind a transit van that effectively obscured her view ahead. The transit indicated that it was pulling out into the next lane. As it did so she saw directly ahead another vehicle which at first she thought was indicating a left turn, but then realised all the hazard lights were on because the vehicle was stationary in the lane.
‘I was approaching at only 50mph but too fast to stop.’ She made ‘an evasive swerve into the next lane.’ Fortunately, there was no vehicle at close quarters in this lane and so ‘I lived to tell this tale which could have ended so differently.’ She is now fearful about travelling here.
So it’s not only the number of fatalities that cause concern, it’s the near misses as well and the fear this induces.
But if all these considerations are to be taken into account, the way relative safety is measured by National Highways and the government has to change. That involves saying, ‘We got this wrong’, and that is the biggest challenge of all.