When an inexperienced young woman was abruptly thrust on to the throne in 1952 – “only a child” fretted a tearful Winston Churchill – Britain was still scarred by an impoverishing world war and struggling to come to terms with its diminishing status on the planet. Churchill, the first of her prime ministers, performed an artful piece of oratorical manipulation when the aged titan spun the ascension of a 25-year-old Queen as the beginning of a “new Elizabethan age”. Her 15th prime minister, who was sworn in at Balmoral by a visibly ailing monarch just two days before her death, tried to do something similar. Liz Truss’s tribute included the declaration that the Queen was “the rock on which modern Britain was built”.
Rock she was, perhaps even to a fault, but how robust is the kingdom inherited by Charles III and how modern? There are fears lurking within the establishment that, deprived of the cohesive glue that his mother provided, our country could fly apart. The closure of a reign of unprecedented duration sees Britain once again uncertain of its place in the world and menaced by gathering storms. This invites reflection on both the record of the Queen and the performance of the country over which she reigned for 70 years.
The obituarists have been deservedly glowing. Throughout her time on the throne, there has been little appetite for republicanism and I write as someone who finds a hereditary head of state intellectually indefensible. The public has been overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the monarchy even when the grisly behaviour of junior members of “the firm” taxed tolerance for the House of Windsor to its limits. The “aspiration nation”, as Britain’s latest prime minister likes to call it, has remained attached to the antithesis of meritocracy. Great waves of social, cultural and technological change have rolled in over the past seven decades. Deference to ancient hierarchies has collapsed. Respect for most of Britain’s institutions has decayed where it has not altogether disintegrated. It was an extraordinary feat to preserve her dynasty through so much tumult. Some of this can be put down to repulsion with politicians. President Thatcher anyone? President Blair? President Johnson? The most important factor in the survival of the crown is how well the Queen fulfilled her role.
Though the rules are nowhere written down, she understood the terms and conditions of constitutional monarchy. It can only endure with the trust of the elected politicians and the consent of the voters. She believed herself chosen by God, but knew she had no divine rights. Of public opinion, she once said: “Heed it we must.” She was a sovereign who referred to herself as the people’s “servant”. She did not let the crown go to her head, something that cannot be said of the “world king” who was recently deposed from Number 10 and some of his predecessors. The virtues most widely associated with her – duty, service, constancy, self-restraint and modesty – were the more prized as they became increasingly rare in so many other areas of public life.
She was the acme of discretion about the dealings between monarch and prime minister, though she could not rely on all of them to keep her confidences. David Cameron embarrassed himself and the palace when he revealed that she had “purred with pleasure” when Scotland rejected independence in the 2014 referendum.
We could all have a guess at her politics. Mine is that she was a kind of one-nation, noblesse oblige conservative who valued, above all else, stability, unity and continuity, the qualities she personified for many of the millions who are now grieving. She admired Margaret Thatcher, but sometimes recoiled from her divisive rightwing radicalism. She was wary of Tony Blair’s constitutional modernisations, which removed most of her fellow hereditary aristocrats from the House of Lords. Those with a claim to know have reported that she could be witty and occasionally acerbic in private. “Why did nobody notice it?” she asked of the toxic bank debts that led to the great crash of 2008. That stands out because it was so exceptional to hear her hint at holding opinions of her own. She dutifully played the role of politicians’ ventriloquist dummy when she was obliged to read out the often ghastly scripts they put in her mouth and sustained the omerta about her own views demanded by the role.
She satisfied Britons’ love of tradition and pageantry while moving with the times just enough not to look archaic. Incremental adaptions to popular culture swelled the affection for her. The playful tea party with Paddington Bear filmed for this year’s platinum jubilee was preceded by the James Bond spoof staged for the opening of the London Olympics. In his address on Friday evening, the new King praised his mother’s “fearless embrace of progress”, but she was more striking for resisting the fluctuating fashions of the seasons of her reign. In an age when many walks of life, including elective politics, have become Instagrammed, one thing the Queen could never be accused of was over-sharing.
Her two most dangerous moments came in the autumn years of her reign. In 1992, her “annus horribilis”, the public revolted at the idea that they should pay for repairs to the fire-damaged Windsor Castle, an emergency defused when John Major brokered a new financial settlement. In 1997, the royal family grossly misjudged the national mood following the death of Princess Diana and had to be saved from rising public discontent by the intervention of Mr Blair, a rescue for which some at the palace could never forgive him.
The disgrace of Prince Andrew led to his effective sacking as a member of the royal family, a necessarily ruthless act. Nothing, not even her favourite child, was more important to her than preserving the institution she embodied for 70 years.
The many word wreaths that have been woven in tribute have often suggested that she was a constitutional and psychological sheet anchor for the nation. From the Suez debacle in the early years of her reign to the pandemic towards its end, many Britons were soothed by her calming presence. “The still point of our turning world”, as Sir Keir Starmer put it. That still point has gone and many millions will miss a woman who did her job so admirably that republicans are among the mourners.
I ask myself whether she fulfilled her role almost too well. By this, I do not just mean that her son will never replicate the longevity of her reign nor the deep personal loyalty that she inspired. I wonder whether she was a bit too good at providing camouflage for the challenges facing Britain by being such a source of comfort and object of pride for a country in relative decline.
If Britons are truthful with themselves, the “new Elizabethan age” was not as reinvigorating as Churchill’s optimistic rhetoric promised. This is not the thriving, dynamic nation claimed by Ms Truss. If it were, she would not have become the fourth Tory prime minister in the space of just six years.
During the epic span of the Queen’s reign, Britain unwound an empire and fitfully searched for an international role. It joined what became the European Union disadvantageously late and then compounded that strategic error with another by choosing to wrench itself apart from its continent in 2016. That has compounded the stresses on the constituent parts of the UK. Despite the Queen’s best efforts to preserve the union, it is much more brittle than it was when she was crowned. In the arts, science and finance, Britain can boast that it is a world-class country. Anything else is over-claiming.
A reckoning with the past seven decades will be uncomfortable, especially for the Conservatives. They supplied 11 of the Queen’s 15 prime ministers. They ruled for 46 of the 70 years that she reigned. Ms Truss has arrived at Number 10 in a cloud of promises to “tackle the issues holding Britain back”, as if her party had not been in office for the past dozen years and for the majority of the time since 1952. Many of the problems she has spotted, from chronically poor economic growth to struggling public services, were identified as weaknesses by many of the prime ministers of the Queen’s reign.
Now is a time of mourning for a remarkable monarch who earned the world’s respect. Soon, the country will need to confront the challenging questions that outlive her. It will have to do so without her steadying presence to console Britons with the idea that all will be well in the end.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer
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