Queen’s death will rock this country to its core – she was a stable center amidst a constant flux | Jonathan Freeland
We knew the words would be spoken one day, but it was still a shock to hear them. The queen is dead.
Of course, we knew the time would come. When a photo was released on Tuesday showing the monarch welcoming her new prime minister – her 15th – to Balmoral, her face looked oddly skinny. The queen was 90 years old and we are all mortal, even those whose blood runs deep blue. And yet, the announcement of his death on Thursday afternoon will shake this country very deeply, for reasons that we may not fully grasp.
Many will say that the nation has lost its grandmother, that we are a family bereft of its matriarch – and that comparison is not that far from the truth. Not because everyone knew or loved the Queen as a parent, because obviously that’s not true. But the comparison holds in this much narrower sense: she was a fixed point in our lives, a figure of continuity when everything around was constantly changing. Everything has changed since the day in 1952 when she inherited the throne. This country – of black and white television, gentlemen in hats and Lyons Corner Houses – and this one would hardly recognize each other. The only thing they had – had – in common was her.
She was so completely woven into the fabric of our lives that we had long ceased to see the thread. It wasn’t just coins, notes and mailboxes. It was the fact that you could hear a song called Her Majesty, of a different life, written by a band that broke up half a century ago, and the majesty that they were singing was the same person who still reigned. Longevity plays weird tricks like that. My grandmother was born in 1906 and died almost 30 years ago, yet the monarch for most of her adult life was this same queen. Elizabeth was the head of state of this country for over 70 years.
As with parenting, so does being a national figurehead: a lot of the work is just showing up. Elizabeth understood this very deeply, realizing that continuity amid turmoil was the great value a monarchy could add to a democratic system. This is why she never tolerated an abdication, whatever her age or infirmity. In his view, the disavowal of the throne in 1936 by his uncle Edward VIII after just 325 days was a trauma that was never to be repeated. The monarch’s job was to stay put, a stable center in a whirlwind of chaos.
Of course, there was more than that. She made scrupulous neutrality seem easy, a simple matter of doing and not saying anything. But, as his son – the new king – has demonstrated throughout his long, long apprenticeship, it’s harder than it looks. Spotting neutral ground requires not only a restraint that has always eluded Charles, but also an intimate familiarity with the terrain. The Queen’s stagecoach with her red boxes was well known, but Westminster hands who dealt with her insisted she had an unusually shrewd understanding of politics and diplomacy.
Footage that surfaced about a year before the Queen’s death showed her working in the room at a G7 reception in 1991. Watching her go from Helmut Kohl to George Bush the elder, gently managing Ted Heath even as he and several other men spoke to her, left little doubt that she was a top notch operator.
The proof of her accomplishment was in how little her subjects knew her, or at least her beliefs. The precursor to The Crown TV series was Peter Morgan’s West End play The Audience, imagining his private weekly meetings with several Prime Ministers. Naturally, the playwright yearns for conflict, and the strongest clash Morgan generated was between the sovereign and Margaret Thatcher over apartheid South Africa, with Elizabeth siding with the Commonwealth and against her prime minister. in the search for sanctions. The same episode was recounted in The Crown. It stood out, in part, because it was so rare: for seven decades there were almost no other public clashes between the sovereign and her governments, and very few intrusions by the monarch into politics. . (Even the incident in South Africa was based on a 1986 report in The Sunday Times that came from anonymous advisers to the Queen, rather than anything Elizabeth herself said out loud.)
The result was that an era which saw enormous social upheaval, a shift to demotic and democratic in manners and mores and the end of deference – an era which could have proved disastrous, if not terminal , for a feudal institution like the monarchy – instead saw royalty cementing its position. Republicanism was a lost cause in Elizabethan times, although the idea of assigning any other role in public life based on genetic lineage would have been dismissed as an indefensible step backwards.
Supporters of an elected head of state have struggled to gain traction for the simple reason that the Queen has done the job so well. Republicans could only argue that it was a fluke, that although the heredity lottery yielded a winner this time around, there was no guarantee it would do so again. But it was not good. While it was there, the monarchy seemed to make sense – an illogical, irrational sense, but a sense nonetheless.
And what was the heart of this call? Restraint, a strong sense of duty and an old-fashioned work ethic – most recently manifested in her determination to participate in her Platinum Jubilee celebrations, despite what were quietly called “episodic mobility issues” – were admirable, but they don’t explain the emotional hold Elizabeth exerted on the nation she served for so long. Rather, the key lies in an event that preceded his birth to the queen, which even preceded her adulthood.
For what is the founding event of modern Britain, the moment that functions as our national creation myth? It was World War II, and more specifically 1940, when Britain stood alone against fascism. This story – Churchill versus Hitler – has been said to have replaced the Christian gospels as the basic narrative of good and evil by which our society orients itself. Every difficult moral situation, every ideological dispute, is ultimately seen through it or measured against it.
Most of the time, this period has passed from memory to history. The last human connection to the war, the last person in British public life who played a part in it, was the Queen. She was on the balcony, in uniform, alongside Winston Churchill on VE Day. Her husband fought in the Royal Navy. Watch the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech and you’ll see that after George VI delivers his historic speech, urging the nation to stand firm in the face of the Nazi threat, teenage Elizabeth is there to embrace it.
The Queen connected us with the defining event of our modern national life, the event of which we always take pride and purpose. This link did not need to be specified; even the slightest nod in his direction wielded enormous power. Remember his televised message to the nation at the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, just as the first unknown lockdown began. She advised that we had endured greater hardships before and overcame them. Invoking the definitive war anthem, she promised, “We’ll meet again.”
It was a powerful bond and it lasted throughout the post-war period, a period that may only now end with his death. She reminded us of our finest hour.
We are now entering a new future. There will be a different head on the piece, different words for the national anthem. The one element of our collective life that was always and reliably the same – linking the Britain of Vera Lynn and the ration books to the Britain of Dua Lipa and Twitter – is gone.
Many will mourn a woman they saw visiting a school or opening a hospital; the sender of a birthday telegram to a parent or grandparent; the embodiment of the crown to which their son or daughter has sworn an oath and risked their life to defend it. We will talk about the national values that she embodied.
But millions of people will now mourn something more intimate and precious: the loss of someone who has been a permanent part of their – our – entire life. His death will bring to mind all that has happened over the past 70 years, and all those others we have loved and lost. There is grief contained in grief. Today we mourn a monarch. And in that very act, we also mourn for ourselves.
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