The Debatable Land #28: Queen Elizabeth II, 1926-2022
An era ends and everything henceforth will be strangely, subtly, different.
Monarchy is not rational. That is its point, for people are not wholly rational creations either. In the modern world, a constitutional monarchy risks seeming thoroughly anachronistic. Yet, perversely, perhaps that is what lends it at least some portion of the authority upon which it depends for its survival. It is a thread - a golden one, perhaps - stretching back to all our yesterdays, offering a sense of continuity all the more valuable for typically existing in the background. A presence that is reassuring precisely because it rarely needs to be contemplated at all, humming along as the background noise to a nation’s story.
And so this is a strange, oddly unsettling moment and many people, I wager, are surprised by the extent to which they are moved by the death of Queen Elizabeth II. For most of us, she has always been there; a head of state whose presence underpinned the fabric of the nation. If we are honest, this presence was often dull but that served only to increase its value. There are places for excitement but the monarchy is not one of them.
The loss, then, is more piercing than many people could have expected. It is easy, perhaps, for some to mock this just as it may baffle outside observers but this underestimates a human need for permanence and the comfort to be drawn from ritual. The funeral, it scarcely needs saying, will be magnificent.
On the occasion of her silver jubilee - some 45 years ago - Philip Larkin wrote a short poem that is deservedly being widely shared on social media:
In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change.
Duty and service naturally dominate much of the coverage of the Queen’s death but her chief service was simply being. If it is difficult to imagine how any monarch could fulfil his or her duties more successfully than Elizabeth this is not only because few of us have any experience of a different one.
We easily forget, too, the breadth and depth of her influence reached. An illustration: My mother died earlier this year and this evening my six year old nephew told my sister, “That’s two people we know really well that have died this year”. I imagine there are countless small boys and girls across the country expressing similar sentiments tonight. If you wished a snapshot of the monarch’s significance then this will do.
Likewise, in moments of national distress the Queen could reach the country in ways no politician could hope to achieve. As she put it, perfectly, during the covid pandemic: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”.
Symbols matter even when they are easily discounted. Elizabeth’s presence was in some strange sense a guarantee of immutability in times of constant turmoil. Whatever else may befall the land, the Queen would be present. A thread of continuity upon which change - often necessary and beneficial change - could be hung.
The Britain she leaves is almost unrecognisable from the Britain that existed when she succeeded her father. It is, for the most part, a kinder, gentler, better country. Yet, unavoidably, this feels like the end of an age; the last notes of a long familiar tune, fading into the night air. What comes next must necessarily be uncertain but I should be surprised if the accession of Charles III really prompts a serious or significant or long-lasting uptick in republican sentiment in this country.
It may be different overseas. Those other countries where the Queen has been head of state may, following a proper period of respect, conclude it is time to move on to fresh constitutional arrangements. And that will be fine and no offence need be taken or slight intended.
Monarchy, however ludicrously, has a kind of magic. As it happens, I have witnessed this in both the Republic of Ireland and the United States, seeing people flock to bear witness to a royal presence even as they might insist, against all available evidence, they were immune to this kind of caper. In Dublin as in Washington DC, however, the Queen’s presence was guaranteed to be the hottest ticket in town. Even in staunch republics royalty may cast a spell.
Now, though, a new chapter must be written. The very ordinary words “the King” seem strangely discordant, like some kind of constitutional malfunction. A death that cannot be in any sense considered a surprise still has a strange ability to shock. Anyone seeking evidence for the Queen’s substance might care to reflect on that.
The realm, it turns out, is a community after all. Some of the mourning and pageantry in the days to come may seem excessive but none of us have experienced this kind of rupture before. No-one has since the death of Queen Victoria.
The show must, of course, go on but an era of certainty is now followed by a moment of uncertainty. The sense that something fundamental, if hard to define, has changed is palpable. An old age has passed and we await the dawn of a new one with a curious sense of foreboding. The country’s axis has shifted, however subtly, and it feels like nothing will be quite the same. There is no need to be a monarchist, let alone an impassioned one, to appreciate this and therein, once again, Elizabeth’s influence and importance resists overstatement.
Her significance lay in being, not doing, even if she could also frequently be counted upon to do the right thing. Her death is the biggest news story in the world this evening and if this is, objectively, irrational that is a further reminder there is neither need nor use in seeking to impose too much order on the crooked timber of humanity.
The country will go a little potty in the days to come but there are occasions when that kind of excess is not so much forgivable as thoroughly justified and this is one such rare moment. That old saw, “We shall not see her like again”, never seemed so appropriate. Queen Elizabeth II is dead and will be succeeded by King Charles III and it will take some time to become accustomed to that. She served and, in the end, that is most of all that needs to be said.
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Lovely article. Thanks.
So representative of how many of us are feeling, thank you