The shock is palpable, the grief overwhelming. Although the British national anthem includes a deeply heart-felt wish, ‘Long to reign over us’, human beings are subject to the doom of mortality. With every passing year, the long reign of Elizabeth II would obviously be approaching its final phase.
But apart from those charged with the secret preparations for the obsequies and the transition, no-one wanted to think about that. In the seventy years since the Queen’s accession, the world has changed profoundly. So has Britain. There have been difficulties and crises. Indeed, there have rarely been years when everything seemed to be running smoothly. Complacency was never possible for long. Yet there was stability, personified by a great Lady. It was as if she had come to embody the nation.
There is a paradox. The Queen was never demonstrative. Stiff upper lips are less in vogue among her subjects than they used to be: not in her case. In the midst of turbulence and truculence, she was always a still point in a turning world. She had a dignity, a self-command and a solemnity which seemed to express the essence of her personality.
They also reflected her inner values. ‘Duty‘ was at the core of the Queen’s being as was ‘service.’ From girl-hood onwards, she had dedicated herself to the service of her country. That was the duty which she embraced. Service and duty were the values which she lived by, sustained by a deep religious faith and by her father’s example. George VI did not have a strong constitution. But in the difficult war years, with the constant gracious help of his Queen Elizabeth, he helped to symbolise his nation. Churchill, indomitable, was Britain embattled. George VI, reserved, was the eternal British homeland.
Churchill and George VI would both have taken it for granted that the British Empire was also as eternal as the Mother Country. History had other ideas. Elizabeth II lived through the end of Empire and its transformation into a Commonwealth. It is impossible to overstate her quiet and persistent influence in that process. A few decades ago, Conservative modernisers and Labour radicals would have agreed on one point. They both thought that the Commonwealth was an anachronism, beloved by nostalgics who were not prepared to embrace the future. To them, paraphrasing Thomas Hobbes, the Commonwealth was the ghost of the British Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.
The Queen knew better. She had also dedicated herself to the service of the Commonwealth; another duty which she would perform; another responsibility which she would discharge. Whether or not she had anticipated the concept of soft power, she understood that this nexus of relationships would be of immense value to Britain. It might no longer be: ‘Wider still and wider/may thy bounds be set.’ But it could and should be ‘wider still and wider may thy friendships spread.’ The evolution of the Commonwealth is part of the immense debt of gratitude which her Nation owes its great Monarch and its greatest servant.
Monarchy is a mystery, perhaps best defined as a form of secular transcendence. A person is endowed with ceremonial regalia which separates them from the rest of mankind. It is a high destiny and also a daunting one. Yet if our late Queen was ever daunted, she never showed it. Throughout her life, she was always worthy of that highest of destinies.
There will now be an outpouring of emotion as almost all her Majesty’s subjects try to come to terms with loss. It is virtually impossible to imagine the country without her. The motherland has lost its mother. There will be solemn and sonorous tributes as those tasked with delivering them try to find words to do justice to the Queen’s passing. But up and down the land, in millions of homes, there will be tears, mourning, broken hearts. But there is one comfort. The final ebbing appears to have been brief. Her Majesty was able to enjoy life until almost the end.
‘I glory in the name of Britain’ said her ancestor, George III, on his accession. Our Queen was less given to demonstrative language, but for seventy years, she could have said the same. We, her bereft subjects, should now glory in her life, her achievements and her example. We must mourn. We should also feel inspired.