For years, Queen Elizabeth II was a link to another age — an age of tradition, and respect, and restraint. Did that age ever exist in an ideal form? Of course not. But we still admire its echoes, which surrounded our conception of the Queen.
She was crowned in 1953, looking rather vulnerable at the age of 25. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. Man had only just reached the top of Everest and was more than fifteen years away from reaching the Moon.
The Empire was crumbling but the young, elegant, stoical Queen kept alive a sense of British importance and stability. Her personal calmness and courage as she toured dangerous regions was noted (and would be later tested when Michael Fagan, a disturbed socialist, snuck into her bedroom).
Her popularity never faltered. Governments, institutions, actors, athletes et cetera have risen and fallen in their popular esteem but Her Majesty was always loved. Was this in part because our exposure to her was so limited? Of course. But there is something special in that. She never imposed herself upon the public. She was committed to the tiring, traditional, constitutional, life-affirming, often rather modest and unheralded duties that she had inherited. The monarchy is a lot more than one person, of course, but it took a special person to embody it.
All the way back in the 1950s, Malcolm Muggeridge warned that elevating royals to the status of celebrities would kill the institution. Who could deny that he was onto something? Princess Diana was drowned in prurience and sentimentality, and some of the Queen’s own descendants have disgraced themselves, to greater and lesser degrees, by embracing the sordid lifestyles and the haughty status of the rich and the famous. Throughout it all, Queen Elizabeth maintained her dignity and grace, and her focus on her own responsibility.
She never embarrassed herself — and she never embarrassed us
She never embarrassed herself — and she never embarrassed us. Nor did she ever act as if she had been burdened by responsibility — which is the case for many poorer people, of course, but which is not the case for many, many people who are rich and influential. To have been so graceful in a time of so much cynicism — a lot of it deserved — is her greatest achievement. Anybody who explains it with reference to PR alone has to explain why everyone else’s PR has been so ineffective.
“Family does not necessarily mean blood relatives,” the Queen said in her Christmas Broadcast in 2011, “But often a description of a community, organisation or nation.” In hostile times — with the continuing union and character of the UK bitterly contested — she offered a point of transcendent togetherness. Not everyone cares for royal rituals of jubilees and weddings, but at least they were focal points of broad communality that one could not reduce to passing trends of politics and sport.
Queen Elizabeth earned respect across the world. British republicans have groused about the absurd, baroque rituals of the state. Foreign people, on the other hand, know that they have their own absurd rituals — often with far less historical resonance around them, and with trivial and grotesque personalities at their heart. While advocates of British soft power have a regrettable tendency to reduce our culture to a series of museum pieces, there was something to the admiration the Queen commanded. It expressed a waning but enduring appreciation of nobility.
A lot of grim words will be pronounced about the state of Britain. Certainly, one cannot claim that the Queen has left a nation which feels confident and united. There will be a great deal to say about the nature of the monarchy in our times — and, indeed, in the times that preceded them. But a funeral is no time to speak of an inheritance. We should take time to think of Queen Elizabeth as she was — dutiful, dignified and strong. She is an example to us all. May we exhibit some of the same qualities in the days, weeks and months ahead.
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