Back WHEN Buckingham Palace first suggested that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother should lie in state for four days, Downing Street asked privately whether such a stretch of time was a good idea, and whether the Palace could be sure that the public would, in fact, converge in droves on Westminster Hall to pay their respects. Number 10's warning was no doubt well-meant. But it was misplaced. As the scenes in London over the past two days have shown, with many thousands queuing for more than seven hours to file past the Queen Mother's coffin, the British people's feelings about the matriarch they have lost are strong and clear.

It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon as a form of emotional tourism, a ghoulish outing for those eager only to satisfy their curiosity. And yet one has only to see and hear those who have made the pilgrimage to Westminster Hall - young and old, black and white, exalted and humble - to realise that their motives are rather more profound. Across the generations of the British people, the Queen Mother inspired a remarkable devotion to herself as a person, to the institution she so doughtily defended and to the history she came to personify. This symbolism is not lost even on those born when she was of advanced years. It is simply not true to say that her death has divided people according to their age; rather, it has united them.

The desire of so many Britons to say farewell in person puts in context the sometimes hysterical media debate which has raged since the Queen Mother's death. On balance, the dictates of etiquette and common sense should have persuaded the BBC to instruct its newsreaders to wear black ties during the period of mourning.

There is no doubt that the corporation sometimes tries too hard to be trendy, or to do what it imagines appeals to young people. Its latest rebranding of BBC1 as "the One", for example, seems to be a feeble attempt to mimic Channel 4. It recalls the disastrous tail-fins introduced by British Airways, which replaced the Union flag with garish collages. When you have a brand as strong as the BBC, it seems perverse to drop the very name that symbolises its global success.

Even so, the BBC's crime has been greatly exaggerated. In her interview with Gyles Brandreth in today's Review section, Margaret Rhodes, the Queen Mother's niece, says she was "quite happy" with the allegedly intrusive questions asked by the BBC's Peter Sissons last Saturday, hours after her aunt's death. It is also reasonable of the BBC to point out that it received far more complaints from viewers disgruntled by the re-scheduling of programmes caused by the Queen Mother's death, than about Mr Sissons and his supposedly Jacobin colleagues. What is not in dispute is that the BBC's two-part documentary tribute to the Queen Mother was superb, as was its coverage, anchored by David Dimbleby, of Friday's ceremonial procession.

The more important question is what the past week tells us about that other embattled British institution, the monarchy. The answer is that it is clearly rather less embattled than royalists have feared, or republicans have hoped. It is no secret that the Queen and her advisers have long been concerned about the supposed drainage of popular support for the monarchy, and its alleged decline in the past few decades from a symbol of national unity into a miserable soap opera.

And yet the spontaneous display of popular support for the Queen Mother of the past two days has shown that the institution is much more robust than its defenders feared and its opponents wished. She was born into an age in which, as Bagehot observed only 33 years before, the secret of monarchy was deference. "Its mystery is its life," he wrote. By the time she died, those habits of deference had been swept away. But the monarchy has evidently adapted successfully and found new ways to command public support. In recent days, the Queen Mother has often been dismissed as an arch-conservative. While this may have been so in narrowly political terms, it entirely misses the point of how she conducted herself, and her innate talent as a reformer. In so many ways she was a symbol of continuity and the history of a century: as much as Churchill, she came to epitomise the valour of the British in the Second World War, having already served her country in a military hospital during the First. And yet she also grasped from the first the need to invest the modern monarchy with warmth and to give it a human touch.

She was one of the pioneers of the royal "walkabout", plunging into crowds in a way which would have scandalised her predecessors. Blessed with almost preternatural charm, this commoner by birth showed how the Royal Family could achieve a genuine rapport with the public, how it could touch people's lives. Even in her last years, her antennae remained firmly in tune with the changing habits of the nation. As her great-grandson, Prince William says in today's interview she continued to ask "what was the latest thing". His description of her impersonating Ali G is surely one of the funniest and most striking images of this remarkable woman to have emerged since her death.

It is in the nature of monarchy that it magnifies the personal characteristics of those who are its public face. As the Royal Family has discovered over the years, weakness, insensitivity or laziness in its individual members can be a huge embarrassment to the institution as a whole. In the Queen Mother's case, the mystique of monarchy combined with the magic of a remarkable personality was a very powerful brew indeed. Its potency has survived her passing, a spur to those who will follow her to emulate her example.

The reaction to her death will have been a consolation to the Queen for her personal loss. It should also give her fresh confidence about the forthcoming celebration of her Golden Jubilee: "the Firm", it is clear, still has excellent credit with the British people. The queues stretching through the centre of London this weekend have shown more vividly than any opinion poll that monarchy can still be a unifying force: a fixed point around which a changing national life can revolve. The Britain that the Queen Mother left behind is spectacularly more diverse than the nation into which she was born 101 years ago. Yet this new fissiparousness means that the need for a unifying force is not smaller, but greater. Her death, it is true, marks the end of a chapter in our nation's history. But it also has lessons, and a message of hope, for the future.