The Daily Telegraph
A lifetime of service to the nation
For most of us, it feels like a death in the family. Indeed, it is a death in the family. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, whose long life and reign came to a peaceful close yesterday, was the only head of state the vast majority of her subjects have known. But she was more than just a distant, matriarchal symbol of nationhood; she was our constant companion and guide, reassuringly composed even in the most turbulent of times.
The Queen was the longest-reigning monarch, having overtaken Queen Victoria’s 63 years on the Throne during 2015, and, at 96, the oldest. An extraordinary constitution inherited from her mother, who lived until she was 101, allowed her to maintain good health almost until the very end, when her frailty became increasingly apparent. Her energy was remarkable, as was her selfless dedication to her country and its people. For her, monarchy was about duty and vocation, not celebrity and wealth. The institution is what mattered; and she was its stalwart custodian.
Just as during the Second World War, when Britain was blessed with a King and Queen who embodied the defiant spirit of the time, so their daughter preserved and adapted the noblest traditions of her ancestors. Her reign saw great changes, both technological and cultural. When the second Elizabethan age began, butter, meat and coal were still rationed; today, our supermarkets bulge with goods from all corners of the globe.
The Britain that witnessed her Coronation in 1953 was more deferential, more homogenous, less secular and, despite the privations of post-war recovery, far more self-confident. It was victory in that war which reinforced the nation’s sense of its importance even as its status as a colonial power was diminishing. The Queen ascended to the Throne with a substantial chunk of the world still under British suzerainty; within 15 years, all that had gone.
Since then we have seen the dismantling of the British Empire, the founding of the EEC, the defeat of America in Vietnam, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the victory over Communism in the Cold War, the rise of China as a superpower, and the spread of terrorism around the globe. Above all, it has been an age of scientific revolution that has unlocked the structure of DNA, landed men on the Moon, transformed the power of computers, cloned a mammal from an adult cell, decoded the human genome and brought about the mind-boggling communications advances of the past 25 years.
Such a rapid transformation of society would be disconcerting to most people as they grow older; but when you are also head of state, adapting to this changing world is essential in order to avoid appearing aloof and out of touch. It is to the Queen’s great and lasting credit that she managed this transition to modernity with such good grace and dignity.
It was particularly impressive since she was not intended for the role she played. When she was born in 1926, her father’s brother was the heir and no one could have anticipated the circumstances that resulted in his abdication 10 years later. From late 1936, when King George VI ascended to the Throne, Princess Elizabeth’s life changed utterly and became a preparation for an adulthood spent in the service of the nation.
As Britain changed, so did the monarchy – again the most traditional of institutions proved surprisingly adaptable. The Queen permitted cameras into her home and went on walkabouts. She toured the world, offering personal leadership to a new, multicultural Commonwealth. The Queen visited more than 100 countries as monarch, including Canada 22 times – more than any other country in the world – and France 13 times – more than any other country in Europe.
On one trek around the globe, it was calculated that she listened to 276 speeches, gave 102 of her own and heard 508 renditions of the national anthem. She was ever-present without being partisan: a leader in the moral, rather than the political sense.
She was the most photographed person in history and must have met more people and shaken more hands than anyone else. During her reign, there were 15 prime ministers, with the last, Liz Truss, appointed just days ago. The politicians came and went but the monarch carried on, the Queen in Parliament a neutral and unifying figure in an otherwise disputatious institution. She signed into law more than 4,000 Bills.
Her great achievement was to keep the monarchy relevant even as the demotic forces of modernism closed in and threatened to kill off something that could easily be caricatured as outdated and irrelevant. The Queen’s skill was an unerring ability to understand what the country wanted and to reflect its wishes.
Her sense of duty was apparent to everyone; even the doughtiest republicans gave her credit for that. But it underpinned a deep understanding of the institution that she represented and its central role in our island story and its liberal democracy.
Her Majesty’s loyal service to her people reciprocated their loyalty to her. There have been times in our past when the British have retained only grudging love for the monarchy because they have been less than enamoured of the monarch. That was never the case with Queen Elizabeth. The affection in which she was held was an important bulwark for the institution itself.
Moreover, she never sought the celebrity status that our culture now fetishises. Until the end, she remained a very private, even reticent, and undemonstrative individual. She personified the old values of courtesy and decency that are too often these days dismissed as fuddy-duddy and old-fashioned.
The Queen was also a connection to our past, the personification of the nation’s stability and longevity. Astonishingly, one of her godfathers,
Arthur, Duke of Connaught, was born in 1850, the third son of Queen Victoria. This line out to history is something only a hereditary monarchy can provide.
Instinctively, people know that the arrangement we have now is better than the elective system that would replace it. The palpable absence of any democratic choice in the appointment of the new King is not a weakness but a strength because of the constitutional checks on the power of the Crown. The most important aspect of the role now inherited by Charles is its symbolism, the continuation of an ancient contractual relationship between monarch and people. Moreover, a constitutional monarchy can operate in a way that is simply beyond the scope of an elected head of state.
Its neutrality means the Crown can help secure smooth and peaceful handovers of political power and restrain abuses of authority, as we have seen only this week. The Queen’s final public duty was to oversee a trouble-free transition of executive power that in other countries might have engendered a political and constitutional crisis. How many other nations can seamlessly change their head of state and leader of government in a week without tumult? It comes with great sadness, yes, but the country’s stability has owed a great deal to the Queen’s presence at its heart.
The influence she wielded as a hereditary head of state derived from a deep-rooted hold on the affections of the people which a politician can never hope to achieve. The Queen was a reminder of our past, of the continuity of our national story and of the virtues of resilience, ingenuity and tolerance which created it.
We should not forget either that it is not only the United Kingdom that has lost a monarch but Australia, Canada, New Zealand and 11 other overseas territories which retained the Queen as their head of state. With her gone, will they be able to resist the pressure to become republics?
Throughout her many years on the Throne, it was the Queen’s, and the country’s, good fortune that she was accompanied by a consort who felt the impulse of duty and service just as strongly. It would be hard to imagine the Queen making the commitment to her role that she did without the support of the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband she once called “quite simply, my strength and stay all these years”, who predeceased her by just 18 months. No lengthy widowhood for her as with Queen Victoria; and she was able to see her reign through to a triumphant Platinum Jubilee, the like of which will almost certainly never be seen again.
The Queen’s life was not without its vicissitudes. She faced many of the difficulties that beset all families, of broken relationships, divorces and the unhappiness of children and grandchildren. Despite the grandness of her position, she was as subject to the more disappointing aspects of life as the rest of us. As a nation, we all mourn her passing together. The Second Age of Elizabeth is at an end. Long live King Charles III.