Elizabeth the Dutiful
- September 9, 2022
- Allan Massie
If you were to attach one descriptive word to Queen Elizabeth, as in Alfred the Great or William the Conqueror, it would be dutiful.
Queen Victoria died in 1901 four years after her Diamond Jubilee when Britain was at the apogee of its imperial pomp. We speak easily and historians write of the Victorian Age. When Elizabeth became queen in 1952 there was an attempt to drum up the idea of a New Elizabethan Age. It never really took. Yet Elizabeth was a more remarkable and more successful queen than Victoria. She became the perfect model of a constitutional monarch, her political role restricted to consultation and advice, whatever opinions she had never publicly disclosed. Even when the Scottish Independence referendum eight years ago threatened the dissolution of the United Kingdom, she restricted herself to advising people to think very carefully when they went to vote.
Only a quarter of a century separated Victoria’s death and Elizabeth’s birth, while 1952, the year of Elizabeth’s Accession, was much closer to the Victorian Age than it is to us today. Such is the great sweep of history. Winston Churchill, the first of Elizabeth’s Prime Ministers, was twenty-six in 1901. On the day before her death she gave the seals of office to her fifteenth Prime Minister, Liz Truss, born 1975. The Queen’s first grandchild, Peter Phillips, was born in 1977.
Service has been Elizabeth’s role, often a publicly silent one. Victoria’s likes and dislikes of her prime ministers were never secret. Elizabeth’s will be a matter for historians with access to her private papers, some distant day. The magic of the modern monarchy is to be found in silence. Politicians represent the mood and opinions of the moment. The monarch represents and symbolises the enduring interests of the State and the People. If you were to attach one descriptive word to Elizabeth, as in Alfred the Great or William the Conqueror, it would be dutiful. Elizabeth the Dutiful has a good ring, a valuable one in a time when people are very conscious of their rights, too often blind to their duties.
She slipped away with characteristic modesty and no fuss. It is fitting that she should have died at Balmoral, Victoria’s Highland retreat, and a place she loved. Dying there means that her funeral exequies will begin in her northern capital with a service in Edinburgh’s High Kirk of St Giles before her body is taken by train from Waverley station to King’s Cross.
The Queen’s funeral will be the greatest since Churchill’s and that was the greatest since Victoria’s. But it will, or should be, very different from either. Victoria’s was the last great gathering, all pomp and circumstance, of European emperors and kings; it was also, though few realised it at the time, a moment when the sun that shone on the British Empire was about to dip. Churchill’s funeral, with all its magnificence and memory of 1940 and Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’, marked that imperial sunset. We would never, we knew, see its like again.
In contrast Queen Elizabeth’s should be both quietly triumphant and forward-looking but essentially an expression of gratitude. She has presided with grace, good sense and an absence of fuss over the remarkable transformation of Britain, a transformation regretted undeniably by some, nevertheless as extraordinary as anything in the long history of the English, Scottish and then British Crowns. Nobody willed the emergence of a multi-racial Britain; it just happened and has done so with a rare absence of strife. Queen Elizabeth, with her commitment to the idea of the Commonwealth, has helped make this seem the most natural thing in the world. So much has changed. Nevertheless so much has remained the same. The Queen has gone with the flow and so helped make the flow acceptable. In this way her reign has been a triumph of non-political conservatism, much changing that much may remain the same.
Many monarchs and great presidents and prime ministers become deaf and blind (rarely, alas, dumb), and so overstay their welcome, yesterday’s men and women without being aware of it. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth, without ever seeking popularity or being fashionable — let alone, God help us, trendy — adapted undemonstratively to the changing currents and so was both responsive and responsible. She accepted the vulgarity of the times, evident for instance in the portrayal of herself and her family in impertinent television dramas, without comment; that’s the way things are and you have to live with it.
She managed to keep her private person intact, happy with horses and dogs. I suppose that if she hadn’t been queen, she might have trained racehorses as well as breeding them, and done so with marked success. She wasn’t always popular and smart people made jokes about her. But she acquired, first, respect and admiration, then esteem then, I think, love. She was an essential part of Britain’s national imagination or, rather, became that. Today, my grandson, not quite six, said ‘that’s two people I’ve known well who’ve died this year,’ the other being my wife, his grandmother. ‘But you didn’t really know the Queen’, my daughter said. ‘Everybody knows the Queen,’ he replied. He was right; she was part of so many of our lives. The novelist Kingsley Amis used to dream about her. Many do, I believe. He called her Corky in his dreams, and when his son, Martin, asked what they talked about, had not much of a reply. Just this and that, ordinary stuff. I guess people dreamed about Victoria too, but I don’t recall anyone reporting a conversation with the old Widow o’ Windsor, as Kipling’s army rankers called her.
When General de Gaulle died, his successor as President of France, Georges Pompidou, said ‘La France est veuve’: France is a widow. Quite so. As for me, the words that come to mind are the motto of my prep school, only a couple of valleys away from Balmoral. It comes from a poem by William Dunbar, court poet to Queen Elizabeth’s ancestor, James IV of Scotland: ‘service and luve aboif all uthir thing’. It should be her epitaph.