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15 September 2022

The Queue: a brief history of its future

As the line to see the Queen lying in state became a self-sustaining community, Britain finally found that it was going somewhere.

By Will Dunn

Executive summary to the report “Thirty years of the Queue: How Britain Straightened Itself Out” (Dunn et al., 2052)

The most significant period of exponential growth of the British Linear Extra-Urban Region (BLEUR), known colloquially as the Queue, lasted from late November 2022 to early January 2023. The infrastructure built to service the extended lying-in-state period of Queen Elizabeth II gave people the ability to wait for days or weeks in relative safety and comfort. As the Christmas of 2022 drew closer, it was agreed it would only be appropriate that the Winter Wonderland complex be reconfigured from its usual layout in Hyde Park to an open, linear format that stretched north and west, bringing shelter, entertainment and gluhwein to seven miles of waiting people.  

The government plan for an extended vigil (“Operation Snow White”) had first been drafted in the late 1990s, after the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana led civil servants to forecast that very large numbers of people – as much as 60 per cent of the adult population – might need to feel physically involved in the process of mourning the sovereign.

The plan was based on precedent. Lenin’s lying-in-state was extended from four days to almost two months by the combination of high demand and the refrigerating effect of a Moscow winter; he was then embalmed and had been lying in state for 98 years by the time Elizabeth II died in 2022. Jeremy Bentham’s preserved body has overseen the students of University College London since 1850.

What the planners of the late 1990s could not have foreseen, of course, was the possibility that the queue of mourners would become self-sustaining, and that all aspects of social and economic life in Britain would come to be organised along it.

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What was certainly apparent, by early 2023, was that the Queue itself had become an attraction beyond the memorial opportunity that lay at its Westminster end. It was during this crucial period – as, against expectations, the Queue grew rather than dissipating – that people began to acknowledge that they were joining the Queue for its own sake. This was also the point at which, for the first time, people who had already paid their respects to Her Majesty began to rejoin the Queue.

“We went home for a few days afterwards,” one man was recorded as saying in a contemporary interview, “and we were still messaging all the people we’d met while we were waiting. We’d made a WhatsApp group for a load of us, and we said let’s get together again… Where? Yeah, I mean – where else? So we went to the Back.”

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This activity quickly became obvious to the technology companies tracking the phones of these people, who began to offer the ride-sharing services that now enable people to travel from their Placeholder position to work and socialise at other points along the Queue.

In his 2027 book on the Queue, Line of Best Fit, the technology historian Oscar Williams explains that the Queue’s shape allowed for the rapid deployment of new infrastructure. No formation was better suited to the addition of utilities – water, power, data and small modular accommodation (SMA) units allowed the Queue’s moving population to have exactly the same standard of living at every point along the line.

[See also: Notes from the Queue]

The benefits of linear society had been considered since at least as far back as 1882, when the Spanish urban planner Arturo Soria proposed a Ciudad Lineal in which every dwelling was simultaneously in the city and on its edge. Linear cities had been planned or attempted in the Soviet Union, the United States and elsewhere, but it was assumed that such structures would be centrally planned and “infrastructure-first”. As Williams wrote of the Saudi autocracy’s $500bn attempt at a linear city, “they failed to acknowledge that a city’s most basic infrastructure is its people”.

The first Queue Marathon was held in the spring of 2024, when the Queue had formed into a line of around five million people. The Queue was now easily long enough to accommodate a 26.2-mile race (an ultramarathon distance was added the following year) and the route came pre-lined with spectators. The event was significant in that it demonstrated the value of the Queue to the entertainment and hospitality industries: a theatre production, a festival, a restaurant could site itself at a static point along the Queue and capitalise on the structure’s effectively unlimited footfall.

Food trucks and convenience shops had already shown this to a certain extent – the first Greggs on the Queue was famously opened at its end, then situated near Preston Bissett, in the autumn of 2023 – but during 2024 the retail and hospitality opportunities afforded by the Queue led to a huge revival of physical shopping. The British high street was reborn as a single unbroken path, defined not by the aspirations of town planners but by the footsteps of a population.

Not every business that attempted to capitalise on the Queue succeeded; most notably The Q, a luxury hotel chain that bought and developed several sites along the route from 2025 to 2026, encountered protests and was eventually deserted by its investors.

The Queue’s early Standers endured hardship enough; accommodation was extremely basic and typically had to be vacated daily. Floods and fires were common, although with the establishment of the emergency services access road in 2025, help could arrive more quickly than in a traditional settlement.

More importantly for people in the early 2020s, when many people had large volumes of personal possessions, taking permanent residence in the Queue involved giving up everything that would not fit into a powered wardrobe. However, in a country that was in deep recession, encumbered by extravagant levels of government debt and gripped by a housing affordability crisis, many Britons were actually attracted to the Queue by its promise of a simpler and more affordable existence.

The almost complete transition to remote work meant that Britain’s knowledge economy could easily be reoriented along the Queue, aided by a new industry of equipment and digital connectivity that allowed Standers to create marketing campaigns, file company accounts, participate in financial markets or write glib, speculative thinkpieces from their place in the great procession.

For many years, economists had spoken of urban agglomeration. It had been the aim of the Northern Powerhouse project, which proposed transport links to meld the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull into a belt of prosperity modelled on the connected conurbations of the Bay Area or the Randstad. But the moving Queue – a conurbation not just unified geographically but in a simple, shared purpose – achieved something else. It was, Williams writes, “an antidote to the atomisation that technology had wrought – a way to cope with the dissipation of finance, culture and politics that characterised the early Information Age”.

But the Queue was also an indicator of some more ancient impulse. As it grew north and west, it followed a path that was in some way fundamental to British economic activity: the route along which the druids had rolled bluestones from Wales to the Salisbury Plain, that same deep bureaucratic ley line that had guided the planning of HS2, the M1 and the city of Milton Keynes.

In 2028 the government, after some false starts by traditionalist ministers who saw working from the Queue as not really working, came at last to support economic reorientation with a new policy of “Levelling Along”. Studies suggested that the Queue could provide the same opportunities for recruitment, entrepreneurship and idea-sharing as a city, but more so, thanks to its mobile population. In government the Queue began to be spoken of as the new economic backbone of Global Britain.

In the Queue itself something more important had happened. In 2019, a survey of British workers found that at least a quarter – seven million people – freely admitted that their work made “no useful contribution to society”. But by 2024 surveys of workers in the Queue – in all jobs – found a widespread sense of purpose. Here at last was true progress: not the sham triumphs of GDP growth or technological development, which seemed so important to those in power and brought so little tangible benefit to everyone else, but literal, physical advancement. The country was going somewhere, one step at a time.

The lasting irony of the Queue has been its effect upon the monarchy. The new King became irascible at a nation that appeared to him unwilling to stop mourning his predecessor, and on a microphone that was left on after a BBC interview he was heard to ask: “She was my mother, for goodness’ sake – why can’t they leave her alone?” The comment was not well received by the tens of millions who now identified as Standers, or the newly influential Placeholding industry. William and Kate, however, recognised in 2031 that it was important not only to visit the Queue but to join it, for the minimum three-month period. In doing so they achieved a new settlement between the monarchy and the Queue, which by then accounted for almost 40 per cent of the UK population. By that time it was more obvious than ever that the Queue reflected Britain: the sovereign lies at its head, but she was never its real point.

Today almost all British life takes place either within the Queue or in its service industries. As we approach the 30th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s passing, we must acknowledge her final gift, for it was in mourning her that Britain began literally to straighten itself out. It was in that moment that the great and shameful delusion of this island as the seat of empire, the ruler of the waves, was at last given up, and Britons saw what lay beneath that delusion, the most fundamental truth of our national character: above all things, we know our place.

[See also: Do British stereotypes make any sense?]

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