It seems that it should be a near spiritual ritual of Britishness to live through the end of the reign of one sovereign and the beginning of another. The emotions around the death of a monarch are, for those who feel them, central to what make us more than a vast number of people arbitrarily living together on an archipelago of islands. They strangely elevate us above the pleasures and travails of our daily lives. They connect us to others around the world who share our monarchy for reasons that might usually feel contingent, if not odd — but for a moment in time acquire a solemnity.
Elizabeth II’s incumbency was so enduring that any number of people lived lives here without such an experience. Now, her passing risks bequeathing something more akin to a shipwreck than a pre-ordained and pre-planned moment in time, the passage of which should bring, as well as grief, the solace of continuity. Britain has become a country in which we are part strangers. Precisely because the Queen prolonged a particular past, this week has been a temporal rupture.
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In her spirit still lived her father and grandfather, the kings who, because of the two world wars, reigned over what was probably for the first time an overtly British nation-state, rather than a tenser union of once separate kingdoms. To mourn Elizabeth II is to mourn that 20th-century Britain. In reality, it was a short era. By the Seventies, something that fighting the two wars had created was already dissolving. But the last genuinely optimistic decade of 20th-century Britain tied the Queen to two iconic imaginative forces that still, in rather different ways, exercise their pull.
In the first, Bobby Moore, born in the East End during the Blitz, climbed the steps at Wembley, and, not wanting to dirty the Queen’s white gloves, wiped his hands, before she handed him the Jules Rimet Trophy. For English football, that summer afternoon has constituted an ideal of greatness against which everything since has fallen short, even as there are any number of ways in which football in Britain is more inclusive than it was on 30 July 1966. If the 56 years of hurt were to end in Qatar this winter, there would be no fusion of the club rituals of football at 3 o’clock on a Saturday with the national team’s victory, no way of avoiding the question of what the World Cup was doing being played in the middle of European domestic seasons in Qatar, and there would be English not Union flags flown in celebration. Much more likely, there will be more years to add to a song written for an occasion where attaining that ideal in the Queen’s presence seemed in touching distance.
The Beatles are the second vehicle of collective emotion, running from war to the Sixties, to which the Queen was connected. John Lennon was born during the Liverpool blitz and Paul McCartney’s parents met in an air raid shelter. They played as children on bombsites. Then, like the Queen in the Fifties, the Beatles became in the Sixties the new outward face of post-war Britain, even as the shadows of the older Britain ran through some of their best songs from A day in the life to Eleanor Rigby. McCartney said that growing up, the Queen seemed akin to a film star: someone it would be impossible for a working-class boy like him to meet. But he did. He’s now a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour. As the Beatles were falling apart in 1968, McCartney, always at home in pre-rock and roll British musical culture, wrote a music-hall style ditty, “almost”, he said, “like a love song”, about the Queen. On Abbey Road, after he finishes singing “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”, there is a gap. Then the 23-second Her Majesty begins: the last sound on the last album the Beatles made.
The age of Queen Elizabeth II could not stop in the Sixties. Through the increasing political and economic fragmentation of the United Kingdom from the Seventies, the Queen served as an exemplary constitutional monarch. She might even be said to have practised denial in the face of what was changing: order being necessary, she knew that a public show of it is required from the person who bears witness to the underlying tumult.
Nothing symbolises the United Kingdom Union, not even the armed forces, as much as the monarchy. The monarch must represent the whole of the Union and be sensitive to its constituent parts. This is much easier said than done. The Queen in part succeeded because deep in her character ran an unwillingness to perform angst against some abstract standard of the way things are supposed to be. The Union is not helped by gimmicks and cannot withstand a lot of tortured contemplation. It just has to be lived as though it were self-evident that it and the tapestry that constitutes it matter. In appointing her last Prime Minister and meeting her end at Balmoral, she may have, at the last, still served the Union well. By appearing while dying with a smile on her face to meet Liz Truss, she has also given what seems like an accidental premiership unfolding in a national emergency a dignity in its beginning that it would not otherwise have.
Without her, though, the monarchy itself is less secure. There will be less of the already severely strained charity bestowed towards those inside it who let it down. Meanwhile, the Queen appears to have been the last tie binding the Sussexes to the Royal Family. If the attacks hit and wounded her anyway, the grief writ across Prince Harry’s face as he arrived at Balmoral tells its own story. Unless the emotions of his dash to Scotland brings reconciliation, the burden of protecting the monarchy from filial and fraternal score-settling now uncomfortably passes to its targets.
Britain has lived through a not insignificant number of kings and queens who did more to jeopardise the monarchy than to preserve it. By contrast, the Queen made it an institution that attracted admiration, perhaps even abroad some envy. At the very point when there might have appeared every reason to doubt the purpose of a constitutional monarchy so overtly laden with pomp and pageantry, she gave it an almost transcendent purpose.
This achievement was not at all obvious in the first half of her reign. Probably she had not yet accomplished it. There was no war where she could demonstrate her fortitude as George VI did. While she was not born to be Queen and came to the throne at a young age, her accession did not have quite the air of tragedy that gave such meaning to her father’s life as king. She had to become through service the Queen she became, including the Queen who could so delightfully take tea with Paddington. Perhaps the Crown though instant in acquisition must be borne as a pilgrimage. Perhaps his utter inadequacy to the trek was why Edward VIII opted to dump it on his brother and niece. Perhaps it was a simple willingness to meet the longevity of the journey that took her so far. She appeared to find truth in an Aboriginal proverb she quoted in a speech in Australia in 2011: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.”
More prosaically, the Queen possessed a seemingly innate capacity to practise self-discipline and humility. Her predictability on such matters is why many self-proclaimed republicans could respect her. Could anyone have doubted that she unhesitatingly would have thought that the Covid rules about funerals applied to the Duke of Edinburgh’s?
Nobody from the outside can know how much over seven decades the Queen sacrificed and where, for better or worse, she reached her limits. Over the past year, what she did not have the physical strength left to do, from the Cenotaph to the State Opening of Parliament, made the nearness of the end apparent. What was left though in the Jubilee was a chance for what is still, for now anyway, the United Kingdom to say thank you while the Queen was alive to receive the gratitude. On the last day, she left Windsor and came to London again to play her part. Now, with the help of the rituals she would have recognised, those of us who want the monarchy to endure through the parting must too try to rise to the change.
This article was first published on 10 September 2022.