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The Queen and the people

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Written by Robert Tombs

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Queen of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and “her other realms and territories,” Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, has died aged 96, after 70 years on the throne, the oldest and longest reigning monarch in the twelve centuries since the kingdom began.

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Few of her subjects can remember any other monarch, and so her passing is felt almost universally as a personal event and a major break with the past.  It is difficult to imagine the monarchy as an institution without thinking of her as a person, and of the way that she played her role: never failing, dutiful, discreet, enigmatic.  Yet the nature of monarchy is to be eternal: so just as George VI was immediately succeeded by Elizabeth II, so she is followed by Charles III, as he in due course will be followed by William V.

To be at the same time an individual and a symbol, to give the Crown a human face: that is the task and challenge of each succeeding monarch.  Since the reign of Victoria, the monarch has been the non-political head of the state and of the nation, and the patron of civil society organizations from sports clubs to research centres, from professional bodies to community groups.  Queen Elizabeth was patron of over 500 voluntary associations, and other members of the royal family are engaged, often actively, in some 3,000, involving millions of people.  When she spoke to reassure the nation during the Covid crisis of 2020, her words counted.

Queen Elizabeth’s example has been above all one of selfless duty.  On her 21st birthday she promised publicly that “my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family.”  None can deny that she kept her vow.

Of course, “the great imperial family” is no more.  The Empire became a voluntary Commonwealth of 54 independent countries with 2.4 billion inhabitants, and to this the Queen was personally committed.  Without her support it might no longer exist, as successive British governments turned elsewhere.  Since Brexit, the British state is looking with renewed interest to former colonies in Australasia, Asia and Africa, and the Queen’s efforts, which once seemed mere nostalgia, may come to seem far sighted.  Inside Britain too, the relative success of integrating large numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan owes something to the ability of the Queen to embody a non-ideological focus of loyalty compatible with cultural and religious differences.

Official visits overseas helped to maintain political and economic relationships and mark the end of old enmities.  Her visit to Germany in 1965 is still remembered with affection.  One of the most important, and delicate, foreign visits she undertook was to Ireland in May 2011, the first by a British sovereign since George V a century earlier.  Over that century, Ireland had separated from the United Kingdom amid insurrection, civil war, and terrorism.  There was ample cause for resentment, even hatred, on both sides.  During the visit it became evident that Elizabeth could speak for the nation in a way that no president or prime minister could.  The power of symbolism has rarely been so tangible.  When she spoke of “things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all”, it marked a moment of mutual forgiveness.

Elizabeth II has been first and foremost the symbol of the State.  She opened sessions of parliament wearing her crown, and reading a speech outlining the legislative programme of “my government”.  For many, this seemed merely a picturesque pageant, a reminder of bygone royal powers; but it was also a sign that the state was not identical with the government or even the parliament.  Important parts of the State are kept at arm’s length from politics.  The civil service, the police, the judiciary and the Church of England owe their allegiance to the Crown, not to the Prime Minister.  Most importantly, the armed forces have a strong link to the Queen personally.  Until quite late in her reign, in uniform and on horseback, she reviewed her troops every year, and in old age continued to do so in civilian clothes from a small carriage.  She thus helped to keep the balance between the different arms of the state and to maintain their political neutrality.  Finally, monarchy makes the United Kingdom different from most of its neighbours, and gives it an undeniable prestige.  This is precisely what the republican minority dislike.

As the pretty young girl grew into the aged matriarch, the feelings she inspired changed in parallel, but her seeming permanence eventually overcame criticisms which at times she had faced, especially when in middle age she had neither the glamour of youth nor the prestige of age.  She was at times accused of being cold, unfeeling, old-fashioned, and ‘out of touch’.  The worst moment came after the accidental death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in August 1997, when the Queen was accused of indifference to the death, and was practically obliged to address the nation on television, “as your Queen and as a grandmother”, to express her feelings of sorrow.  But the moment passed.  In recent years, what were once seen by some as weaknesses have come to be praised as virtues—not least because they are virtues that the 21st century West finds difficult to practice: duty, restraint, selflessness, discipline, discretion.  One of her maxims was “Never complain.  Never explain.”

The official role of the Queen as Head of State was expressed through solemn and elaborate rituals, whose annual repetition added to the feeling of permanence.  But these were only part of the impact she had, and for many people, a far lesser part.  She insisted on mixing with the crowd, dressed in bright colours to be easily visible.  The unending labour of being seen, spoken with, and even touched made her a memorable part of the lives of many millions, in Britain and overseas.  My own first memory of a public event at 3 years old was attending a party in a smoky industrial town to celebrate her coronation.  Fifty-eight years later, she came to Cambridge to mark the 500th anniversary of my college, meeting the students and having lunch with the professors.  In between, as a child and as an adult, I had seen her four more times, and remember each one.  I mention these personal details because my experience is that of a vast number who had met or seen her at close quarters, and felt that in some way this created a personal connection.  This sense of a relationship was not confined to her subjects of Britain and the Commonwealth.  A Dublin fishmonger whom she had met during her Irish state visit, for example, sent her presents of fish at subsequent Christmases.  An international opinion poll in 2014 found that she was the world’s most admired woman.

The death of an aged monarch inevitably makes people reflect on the events that have taken place during her long reign: “the end of an era” seems to be an almost universal feeling.  Queen Elizabeth served in uniform during the Second World War, and witnessed the end of European empires, the rise and fall of Soviet power, Britain’s entry and exit from the European Union, rapid ethnic diversity, a revolution in communications, the growing power of China, the challenge of climate change.  Her first prime minister was Winston Churchill; fourteen others have followed.

Her death brings home to people the enormous changes that have taken place during her lifetime in Britain and the world.  Yet at the same time, monarchy symbolizes continuity alongside the dizzying rapidity of change.

Is this continuity an illusion, a fairy tale to lull the masses?  Or is it a valuable reminder that even in a changing world some important things remain?  Without some continuity, we risk losing direction and solidarity, and dissolving into a mass of disconnected and confused individuals.  Many of the things we value, and which protect us, come from a sense of community and spontaneous mutual trust.  Local neighbourhoods, voluntary associations, charities, nations themselves: all can provide security and belonging.  At all these levels, the Queen was engaged in building connections.  That she would attend a village church, visit a children’s charity, give her name to a new hospital, present medals and honours, preside over meetings of the Commonwealth: all this helped to draw together a vast range of activities and make them part of the shared life of a whole society.

The Queen’s tireless personal dedication, even in extreme old age, to what she saw as not merely a political but also a religious vocation places her among the greatest of English and British sovereigns.  Obvious comparisons are with Queen Victoria and Elizabeth I.  In addition to her personal qualities, and indeed more important still, was her place within the long succession of kings and queens.  Despite our turbulent history which has seen kings being murdered, executed, exiled or simply replaced, the line of succession, if sometimes bent, has never quite broken.  The present royal family has German origins through the Electors of Hanover, brought to the throne in 1714.  But even they were the closest Protestant heirs to the Stuarts, who were themselves related to the Tudors, descended from the Plantagenets, the Normans, and ultimately the Anglo-Saxons who created the English kingdom in the 9th century.  Today, heredity counts for vastly less than in times past—though it is perhaps worth noting that Elizabeth II might also have been a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed.  But the idea of continuity remains important.

As the 18th century political thinker Edmund Burke famously put it, a society is a permanent contract between the living, the dead and the yet unborn.  The Queen, with her predecessors and her successors, embodies this contract.  All nations, all organizations, have their symbols of identity—badges, flags, statues, songs.  Britain’s principal symbol was a small woman in her 90s, heir to 1,000 years of history, whose life showed that a nation is more than just a huge business enterprise.

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About the author

Robert Tombs