The rain is falling outside the window, the sound of students from the Westminster school drifts over and blends with the sound of sirens. And there flies the flag on top of Parliament, still not yet at half mast. Soon it may be lowered, tethered, like a million waiting souls, to the frail, fluttering life of an old lady surrounded by doctors and family in Balmoral. That slight, whisper-light weight will drag behind it a freight of emotion and uncertainty that will bury the country for days and weeks to come.
We are cast into radical uncertainty
Like Ma’at’s feather in ancient Egyptian mythology, the small body of our monarch seems poised on a scale against all our sins and failings, all the frustrations and fears pent up until now by the ever more slender strength of tradition. As if caught before a dam about to breach the country waits to hear if our monarch is truly, finally about to leave this earth.
In one sense we know what is about to happen with more precision than all but a few societies on earth. We know who will succeed her —William, Charles, George — old familiar names prepared to flow out to eternity. We know the rituals and ceremonies that attend the death, accession and coronation of a monarch, and there will be great swarming clouds of commentators and toadies lining up to explain every salute, parade, gesture and symbol of it.
But in another sense we are cast into radical uncertainty. On the one hand there is the avalanche of social change that has accelerated into unforeseen areas in the past 20 years. On the other the unprecedented economic, environmental and geopolitical uncertainty that Britain faces going into the middle of the 21st century.
Britain has told itself a familiar and comforting story for the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign — that of the plucky island that saw off the Nazis, a cheerful and stoical land of big-hearted strivers who can muddle through every crisis. The monarchy faded into a background of postcard ornamentation, a guarantee that our national character would endure even as all around us changed.
Our Queen has carried the hidden heart of British life
If those illusions are now departing, we should not underrate the Queen’s achievement, one perhaps unique in our history. The monarchy has survived in a world that came to reject social hierarchy, deference, aristocracy, tradition and religion. With every force and sensibility turning away from it, the Queen still found ways to connect with ordinary people, to articulate a shared life, and mutely embodied in her conduct what our newly progressive nation no longer wished to hear explicitly articulated.
Far more than an empty signifier, or a maudlin symbol of unity — some sort of collective granny — the Queen fully embraced a mode of life and a set of values utterly alien to modern Britons. Duty, religious piety, humility and service to her fellow man and woman. Like the Israelites bearing the Ark of the Covenant across the desert, our Queen has carried the hidden heart of British life within her through a secular and disenchanted age.
In a country, even more than secular France or America, that has in its recent history lost touch with its history and traditions, the Queen is a last point of continuity. Public trust has drained away from politicians and priests, from the army and the police force. A coherent national story is no longer told in British schools, and Christianity has faded from national life to a faint echo, diffused by a riot of beliefs that challenge and compete with it, but are unable to take its place.
As politicians have become ever more unimpressive and divisive figures, it has increasingly fallen upon the Queen to show leadership, as we saw during the pandemic — her promise that “we shall meet again”, or the mute image of her alone at Prince Phillip’s funeral, more damning than a thousand opposition statements damning Boris’ hypocrisy.
Our country is going to change forever
And this too is the power of monarchy. It creates a sacred bond between the land we inhabit and the mortal body of the Queen. The life of our country, its sovereignty and laws, are not an abstraction or an agglomeration — it has a place, in the breast of its sovereign, our Queen. In a world of ever more virtual information, in which decisions are rarely made by a single individual, in which accountability is diffused amongst the chaos of vast, inhuman systems, this is a rare and precious thing.
I have a feeling, a superstitious feeling, that the life of our Queen, so devoted to service, so pleasing before God, so strangely intense and quiet, somehow shields our country from evil. I cannot help but look at the disasters rumbling on the horizon, and feel that history, so long kept at bay, is returning to England.
During the pandemic, both my uncle and grandmother passed away. I felt in those moments that a world, a way of being, a familiar home where I could find rest, had been ripped away. As I sit, waiting with half the country, to hear the news about the Queen, that feeling has returned.
Something essential is about to be lost, and our country is going to change forever. Those of us who identified with and seek to share the ideals the Queen stood for — her faith, her fortitude and unfailing devotion to her country — must seek to keep those ideals alive, as she did. God save the Queen.
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