AFTER A LIFE dedicated to service in an exacting role which she carried out to a consistently high standard for the immense span of seventy years, the departure from this world of Queen Elizabeth II marks a turning-point. Britain has a new Prime Minister; the previously surging force of totalitarianism has been dealt a severe reverse in Ukraine, but storm clouds amass over a Britain which played an important role in stopping Vladimir Putin.
In his empathetic broadcast on Friday evening, the new monarch King Charles III provided reassurance that like his mother he would stand above the political fray. He would be a balancer rather than a player or an advocate, surely an indispensable position to adopt if the institution of monarch is to continue as a symbol of national unity in what are at times starting to be as fractious in Britain as any seen in the last one hundred years.
Elizabeth II was a rock of dependability and continuity in a tumultuous and tragic world. The tragedy that is an inevitable part of life’s journey for most of us affected her in different ways from the murder in 1979 of Lord Mountbatten, a mentor to the royal family, to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. She bore these sorrows with stoicism which she displayed even in April of last year when strictly-applied Covid regulations forced her to mourn all alone at the funeral of her beloved consort Philip. The last thing she would have wanted would have been for the rules to be waived for her convenience.
She had been brought up well by loving parents who were unexpectedly thrust into the centre of national life in 1936 with the abdication of King Edward VIII and the elevation to the throne of her father Albert, the Duke of York as the new King George VI. When war broke out in 1939 the young Elizabeth, her sister Margaret and her parents remained in the centre of London at the royal residence of Buckingham Palace even after it was bombed by the Luftwaffe. In 1943, at the age of 18, she insisted on joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army. Her father King George VI made sure she was not given any special rank and she became a driver of land rovers, ferrying supplies. Even into her 90s she would ferry guests around her beloved home at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands in one of these vehicles.
Elizabeth was the last serving head of state to have served in the Second World War. Invariably, she made light of her remarkable accomplishments as a monarch who reigned for seventy years. Whatever her private views, she was adept at surefootedly guiding the monarchy through bouts of sometimes perplexing change. She adopted a wry approach to the whims and enthusiasms of some of her Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair’s determination to revive ‘a damaged Britain’ by putting on ‘a People’s Show’ on a chilly night of 31 December 1999 in the form of the tacky (and soon to be abandoned) edifice known as the Millennium Dome. His entourage were rushed to the event in a private tube while the Queen sailed up the Thames in a barge. She was reluctant to cross arms with Blair during the singing of Auld Lang Syne because it was explained afterwards this was not part of the traditional rendition of the first verse of the ancient and symbolic song.
When she ascended the throne in 1952 upon the sudden death of her father, she would no doubt have been daunted by the responsibilities bearing down upon her shoulders. As he surveyed the plans for Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953, her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, looked at the official photograph of the Queen on his desk. “Lovely, inspiring,” he said to his doctor, “All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part.”
The new 26-year-old monarch showed a quiet resolution in carrying out her duties which soon extended to presiding over the Commonwealth of former imperial possessions that emerged as Britain swiftly wound up its empire. Her role as Queen of the Commonwealth was of real importance to her. She managed to establish a rapport with a contrasting array of leaders from what is now an association of 56 states. Her kindliness, charm and absence of grandeur managed to disarm more than one maverick leader. But not unsurprisingly the New York Times which has been dependably anti-British ever since the ex Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson was its CEO, was having none of it. Within hours of the Queen’s death, it published an article by a critical race theorist Maya Jasanoff which claimed that ‘the Queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.’
The Commonwealth’s significance is debated but for a long period it has been a symbol of Britain’s ‘soft power’. By the way she bore herself, Elizabeth herself personified that intangible, lightly-exercised but potent display of authority. She was a calm symbol of continuity and reassurance during periods of strife at home. Britain may have quit its empire more smoothly than other European powers but there were waves of unrest at home, ranging from fierce industrial strife in the 1970s and 1980s, to the undeclared civil war in Northern Ireland which raged for two decades killing thousands. Britain became a hotbed of social experimentation in the 1960s and perhaps has never ceased to be in the forefront of the quest for novelty. It produced an effervescence of cultural vitality perhaps most keenly felt in the outpouring of great popular music from the 1960s to the 1980s. The changes in other branches of life were less harmonious. It meant the Queen’s role as a unifier and symbol of age-old values of service, duty, and restraint acquired a special importance. They are completely anathema to today’s American-imported Woke revolution supposedly meant to overcome a by now largely mythic oppression of various minorities, replacing this supposed dark night of the present with a rule by scoundrels and sociopath types who are supposedly taking the world into a shining new era of progressive freedom.
The lessons of past history suggest that this incoherent revolt against a settled order is likely only to leave much worse injustice and oppression in its wake. The social upheaval gleefully promoted by much of the media in Britain and endorsed by corporate business and academia for wholly opportunistic reasons, has disrupted families in the once solid British middle-class. The generational turmoil has not left the Queen’s family of four children and eight grandchildren immune. There should be no surprise about that. Monarchies throughout history have generated internal disagreements which sometimes have resulted in epochal changes, not always to the good.
The initial days of mourning have offered one example of her continuing influence. The Queen’s family have closed ranks to mourn her passing in the way that she taught them to do by her quiet example. She was a figure who embodied tolerance and pragmatism who it was impossible for even the most militant trade-unionist, Scottish separatist or counter-cultural icon to easily mock or spurn. She attended to her royal duties for eight extraordinary decades, putting in a workload which would (and did) astonish presidents, economic moguls and Hollywood actors. Successive generations of her subjects recognised how fortunate they were that a good person, possessing remarkable equilibrium, reigned over them. It is extraordinary and remarkable in all that time, she is not known to have lost her temper or displayed rudeness or pettiness in public. Though in failing health, she insisted on giving the fifteenth Prime Minister to serve under her, Liz Truss, the seals of office, just days before her death.
As the Irish writer Mary Kenny observed: “Mournful though Elizabeth’s passing may be, it was a wonderful death. Doing her work until the end, laughing and joking last weekend with her priest, and then departing in peace, her family around her. A blessing.”
She had a moral vision and political outlook that would have aligned with the human qualities she displayed in a life so well lived. But she was never partisan in her allegiances and relations with all her Prime Ministers were correct and sometimes affectionate. She kept close attention to practical matters of state. Government leaders in their regular audiences with her found her to be alert and well-informed and they knew not to condescend to her.
If she was alarmed by some of the changes that she witnessed in Britain – such as the decline of the industrial working-class from which many of her staunchest supporters sprang, the creation of an untidy and poorly managed multi-cultural society, or even the assault on the countryside by a new bossy urban gentry class – she kept her feelings firmly to herself. She was a supporter of multi-racialism and a dedicated defender of an unbroken island nation able to avoid territorial strife and pointless sectarianism. Tens-of-millions of people will be inconsolable due to the departure of someone who provided a framework for their own lives and those of two previous generations.
The passing of Queen Elizabeth II will likely be seen as a watershed as significant as the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901. Remarkably, as other institutions have faced repudiation or decay, the monarchy remains highly-regarded and indeed cherished by millions. Not least, this is due to the stellar example of service and dedication to duty. Just one of countless examples will suffice: she was patron to more than 500 charities and what we know of her suggests they all received her attention.
Long the heir to the throne and now King Charles III, her eldest son has also remarkable achievements in charitable, and numerous other fields also, to his credit. Service to others is a virtue that has gone out of fashion in this age of hyper-individualism and sensitivity to personal feelings. Queen Elizabeth provided a powerful antidote to the foolishness and folly of our age and whatever happens now she will have earned an ineradicable place in the affections of the British people and many millions across the world. As a constitutional monarch she was a beacon of wisdom and restraint in a world whose cultural and commercial elites have little use for the quiet, steady and undemonstrative values which she upheld.
It is ironic that the BBC, which has striven to usher in a new discordant world which scorns over-arching national identities in favour of atonal novelty and disruption, will now be required to return to what it used to be very good at and celebrate constitutional monarchy in all its well-merited significance. As the story of Queen Elizabeth’s role in our national public life becomes known to younger people for whom she may have hitherto been a distant presence, many will surely see that the values she exemplified were not anachronistic but essential attributes which a society needs if order, civility, and true progress are to continue.
Our photo of the procession of HM Queen Elizabeth’s hearse from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to St Giles Cathedral from the prospect of the attendant crowd is courtesy of Ewen Stewart.