The Daily Telegraph
THE END OF AN ICONIC ERA
What will be the greatest legacy of our longest-reigning monarch?
The death of Queen Elizabeth II is felt far beyond these islands, not only as the ending of a long and illustrious life but also as a landmark in history. Will future generations refer to the Elizabethan age, as we do to the Victorian? Many will inevitably compare the reigns of our two greatest modern monarchs. To pursue this comparison for a moment may help us to reflect on the importance of the Queen we have lost. To be at the same time an individual and a symbol, to give history a human face: that is the task and challenge of each succeeding monarch.
The term “Victorian” only became current some years after Queen Victoria’s death. Hindsight was needed not only to understand, but rather more to misunderstand and simplify, so that a stereotype of Victorianism could be formed. One distinguished historian born during her reign wrote that he was constantly being told that “the Victorians did this, or the Victorians thought that, while my own difficulty was to find anything on which they agreed”. Victoria’s life extended from the time of stagecoaches to the age of aeroplanes. Yet the “Victorian” concept seems in retrospect to give this revolutionary period a meaning, a stable character.
How might we sum up the reign of Elizabeth, the woman who sat on the throne for longer than any other in the 12 centuries since the kingdom began, and longer than most of us have been alive? Above all as a time of change? Perhaps every generation in modern times thinks of itself as living through unprecedented change. Perhaps, in different ways, they are all right. The generation that grew up in the 1960s has been described as more unlike its predecessor than any other in history. The age of the internet is seeing changes that many believe are uniquely rapid. Are they greater than those caused by the printing press or the steam engine? Has the age of Elizabeth been a time of greater change than that of Victoria, during whose lifetime Britain became the first industrial nation, the first ever mainly urban society, and a near-democracy?
In one sense at least, there is a fundamental difference between the two reigns. During that of Victoria, she and her subjects grew closer together in their fundamental beliefs and ways of life. Even though obvious differences remained between “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”, in piety, respectability, law and order, deference, patriotism, family values, even cultural tastes to some degree, they converged. Victoria seemed to embody increasingly shared values. During the reign of Elizabeth, the opposite has been true. When Her Majesty came to the throne, her sentiments and those of most of her subjects were similar, and indeed similar to those at the end of Victoria’s reign: religion, patriotism, respectability, duty. The Queen maintained those virtues while the country was losing them. Much of the respect she commanded came from that very fact: she upheld the beliefs and standards that we no longer practised.
Great change generates a need for some stability. Many of the ancient symbols of continuity, such as churches, have seen a precipitous loss of cultural and social influence. The monarchy, however, retains its hold on the imagination. This was the Queen’s primary achievement. It makes the United Kingdom different from most of its neighbours, and gives it an identity and an undeniable prestige.
Since the reign of Victoria, the monarchy has given up most of its political functions. But it retains the most fundamental of them all: as the head of the nation and the state. The state is thus not identical to the government or even the parliament. Crucial elements are kept at arm’s length from politics. The judiciary, the civil service, the police, and the Church of England owe their allegiance to the Crown, not to the Prime Minister. Most importantly of all, the Armed Forces had 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 maintain a balance between the different arms of the state, to buttress their political neutrality, and to keep politicians in check.
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 she radiated. But these were only part of the impact she had, and for many people, a lesser part. She insisted on mixing with crowds, dressed in bright colours to be easily visible. Her unending labour of being seen and spoken with made her a memorable part of the lives of millions, in Britain and overseas.
The Queen’s death causes us to recall the transformations that have taken place during her lifetime in Britain and the world. Yet at the same time, monarchy symbolises permanence alongside the dizzying kaleidoscope of modernity. The philosopher John Gray has argued that because we live amid constant fluidity, when the core idea of modernity is of endless movement, people increasingly want and need protection and a sense of belonging. In a secular age, the national community is the best we have.
A nation has famously been described as an “imagined community”, which people feel part of, despite its vast size, far beyond any personal experience. The Queen’s role in giving substance to this imagined community can scarcely be measured. It is hard to grasp the extent, and the presence, of the Queen and her family as patron and inspirer of a huge range of civil society bodies and activities: she herself 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. This has demanded patient, tireless and no doubt often tedious activity, carried out with kind words, smiles, and expressions of encouragement.
Relatively few people in the country could never have seen the Queen, or had no contact, through voluntary societies, with her or her family. My own first memory of a public event, at four years old, was a children’s 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. During those years, as child and adult, I had seen her four more times, and remember each one. But I have never seen a prime minister.
Is the continuity and identity she embodied an illusion, a show to lull the masses? So sceptics have maintained ever since the time of Walter Bagehot in the 1860s, who commented superciliously that monarchy was a fairy story for those “still so imperfectly educated” as to need one. No, it was a precious reminder that even in a changing world, the things we value remain.
Without some tangible continuity and a feeling of kinship we would lose our bearings and dissolve into a flood of disconnected and confused individuals. Many of the things we value, and which protect us, come from 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 constantly engaged in weaving connections. That she would attend a village church, visit a children’s charity, give her name to a new city 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.
Princess Elizabeth served in uniform during the Second World War, and as Queen 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; 14 others have followed. She displayed, when her governments rarely did, devotion to the Commonwealth, which now seems percipient.
We could choose to see her reign as a time of instability, fragmentation, and even (as some like to see it) of decline. But it has also been a time of hugely greater wealth, greater freedom, greater equality and tolerance – the good side of our loss of “Victorian values”. It has also been – despite fears, conflicts and disturbances – a halcyon age, one of the most fortunate times to be alive in Britain in the whole of history. Without the agony, and mostly even without the threat, of a major war. Without hunger, plague, revolution, or civil war. When life expectancy and mass living standards rose to barely imaginable heights, notwithstanding our present problems. Perhaps this is how future generations will look back to the Elizabethan age: as a lucky, privileged time, presided over by a serene and unruffled monarch.
Is this now coming to an end, and might the death of the Queen be seen in years to come as marking the beginning of a darker age – an age of new geopolitical tensions, perhaps even of major conflicts, of climate instability, or further epidemics and other major challenges to the Western model? This looks likely, and some of it inevitable. It means that the task of the Queen’s successors will be increasingly demanding and necessary. Monarchs who, following Queen Elizabeth’s example, can embody and buttress identity, solidarity and trust, will not merely be Bagehot’s magic show. They will be anchors in a new age of uncertainty.
Perhaps future generations will look on the Elizabethan age as a time presided over by a serene, unruffled monarch