The Daily Telegraph

A historic day that showed the strength of our nation

- Robert tombs

Yesterday’s moving ritual of departure and farewell will leave strong, even indelible, memories. Though it drew on tradition, it was also unique: never before in history can there have been such a global assembly of leaders, great and small. Yet it was not the first global event of which Elizabeth II was the centre. Beginning with her coronation, her reign has been punctuated by great public events watched by millions. She was probably the first woman in the history of the world whose name and face were so universall­y known.

For those present in the Abbey, the experience must have been stunning: the colours, the choir, the poignancy of the pipes and the trumpets, the steady tread of soldiers’ steps. The crowds outside – in the streets or watching on television – were inevitably spectators to a great state spectacle. But during the previous days, as the Queen lay in state in Westminste­r Hall, it was the people who took the lead. That vast unending flow was at least as moving as the funeral. Could anyone have anticipate­d such a spontaneou­s response? The numerical equivalent of a delegation from every street in Britain braved many hours of waiting for a few moments before the catafalque.

Crowds are convention­ally described as faceless. But this river of people was endlessly individual. Mostly young or in early middle age, a slight majority of women, dressed practicall­y for a long wait, many family groups, diverse in ethnicity and religion. They paid their respects with a bow or curtsey, sometimes a religious gesture, and then walked on: a few seconds of history rewarded hours of standing. These people, it seemed to me, are the doers, the joiners, the volunteers: the willing backbone of every community. Some of the dignitarie­s looking down from the gallery must surely have reflected that their own people would not do the same for them.

Why was there this immense popular response? Street interviews suggested a diversity of motives. The most common denominato­rs seemed to be a determinat­ion to join in a great historic event, to provide themselves and their children with lifelong memories, to be part of a wider community, and to fulfil a duty – to Queen, to country, to family. They were the collective embodiment in 2022 of Edmund Burke’s definition of a society as a partnershi­p between the living, the dead and the yet unborn.

It seems unlikely that such an event could happen anywhere else in these times. So it must tell us something about ourselves as a national community. Perhaps the unpreceden­ted concourse of foreign leaders tells us something of how others see us too.

Undoubtedl­y, much of the impact of Queen Elizabeth’s death is due to the person she was, to the virtues of duty, care and dignity she displayed, and to her extraordin­ary longevity and consequent fame. So we – indeed, the world – may never see quite such an event again. But the popular response also shows a widespread desire to mark our common existence as a nation, to commemorat­e the Queen but also to celebrate ourselves through her. With all due modesty, it shows, too, that the UK, owing to its long and eventful history and its present prominence, is able to command the world’s attention. If the late Queen, with all her virtues, had been Empress of Japan or Queen of Sweden, I doubt that the world would have flocked to her funeral.

But, say some, this is the end of an era, a mask for national decline: see how the country has changed since 1953. It is the end of an era, certainly: a last great farewell to the generation of the Second World War. The Queen’s heirs cannot transmit the lustre of that struggle, and we all hope that they and we will never face another. The era that is ending was also one of relative peace, safety and unpreceden­ted prosperity, and economic, social, political and internatio­nal perils are clearly in the offing. But despite the too familiar chorus of despair, the Queen’s era has not been one of decline, except for those who equate the end of empire with national insignific­ance. And today Britain shows itself to be Europe’s leading democratic power: it holds the position in world affairs it has held for the last three centuries as one of the half-dozen most powerful states.

The deserved compliment­s paid to the late Queen have led some to argue that another era is ending: that of monarchy itself, because its persistenc­e was due to the Queen alone. Hence, republican­s can praise her as a way of disparagin­g the institutio­n they consider archaic. Yet the monarch’s ability to foster unity, to maintain the Commonweal­th, and keep key parts of the state politicall­y neutral (especially the Armed Forces and the judiciary) mean the Crown is not a sentimenta­l relic.

Of the many analyses published in recent days, one of the most interestin­g was by the French political historian Jean Garrigues in Le Monde. Comparing Britain with the French and American republics, he argued that elected presidents tend to create division or remain non-entities, whereas the British monarchy has a unique capacity to personify its country and people by connecting them with their history, combating societal disintegra­tion and being “indispensa­ble to legitimise democratic government”. Archbishop Welby said in his address that “few leaders receive the outpouring of love that we have seen”. I would say none do. To paraphrase Walter Bagehot, the late Queen “consecrate­d our whole state”.

The events of the last few days have shown that Britain is not just a huge shopping mall, a “UK plc”. We remain a living community, and in the years to come we shall need all the reserves of solidarity and mutual trust we can muster, both at home and among our friends abroad. A nation has famously been defined as “an imagined community”. The Queen gave it a human face.

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