The sun has finally set on the British Empire. Its last rays were embodied in the steadfast person of Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday after more than 70 years on the throne. Hers was the longest reign in British history, during which the country struggled to find its postcolonial identity.
Ten days of ceremonies will mark her passing — no one outdoes the English on ceremony — during which everything that can be said will be said of the Forever Queen. Here, while the news is still news, are a few brief observations on the person, the historical figure and the symbol that was Elizabeth Windsor.
We often think of duty in the context of a particular moment: the soldier in battle, the first responder in an emergency, the citizen in the jury box. The queen’s entire life was a duty fulfilled. She first appeared on the cover of Time magazine in April 1929, a public figure at age 3. You might think the palaces and courtiers and jewels were ample compensation. But consider all the people around her who saw the royal life up close and wanted out. Her uncle abdicated the throne. Her children chafed under the scrutiny. A grandson decamped to Hollywood and bared his soul to Oprah.
Each wished in some way to have a life apart from royal duty. They wanted it to be a job, not an identity. They wanted to be individuals, with passions and quirks and the occasional bad day. Elizabeth understood her duty to efface herself in service to a highly abstract role: The Queen. The same tomorrow, the same next year, the same more than 70 years after she began.
I met her briefly in 1985, at a commemoration of U.S. aid to Britain under the Marshall Plan. I was in graduate school; she had been queen since my parents were in college. I was warned not to initiate a handshake, but she reached to shake mine, supremely dignified but not aloof. She was as close to a complete blank as anyone I had ever encountered. That was her duty: not to be interested or uninterested; not to be happy or grumpy; not to hurry or tarry. She wasn’t there as a person. She was there as The Queen.
History will record that Queen Elizabeth’s self-discipline and devotion to duty most likely saved the monarchy. Tidal forces of the 20th century — the world wars, the spread of democracy, the end of colonialism, the decline of institutions and the rise of individualism — conspired against the anachronism of inherited authority. She neither resisted those forces nor gave them an opening against her.
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Instead, she maintained a relationship with Britain’s former colonies and realms as head of the Commonwealth. This attractive enterprise of more than 50 nations grew out of the imperial past, but instead of power and exploitation it stands for shared prosperity and mutual ideals. Nations have joined the Commonwealth that had no colonial ties to Great Britain at all.
Her husband sometimes said offensive things — but Elizabeth never did. Her children sowed wild oats — but Elizabeth never did. When people complained about the cost of the monarchy, she volunteered to be taxed. When people complained about the coldness of the Windsors, she warmed her affect. For the 2012 Olympics, 60 years into her service, she played herself in a film spoof, parachuting into Olympic Stadium in the company of James Bond.
She made monarchy palatable to the modern age. We’ll see how long that lasts without her.
This is not a question for Britain alone. As queen, Elizabeth symbolized something in short supply throughout the West: unity. She was not of any party or faction. She was not of the left or of the right. She was not of the North or of the South. Though she was once the wealthiest woman in Britain, she liked loyal dogs and muddy boots.
Her very existence — so diligently and dutifully fulfilled — was an appeal to the idea that such a thing exists as a British people, bound together not just by geography, and certainly not by belief, but by a past and a living culture. When the voters elected a Conservative government and later elected a Labour government, and switched again, and again, and again, across decade after decade, every prime minister’s first act was to see the queen. Her ceremonial invitation to form a government embodied the principle that dueling parties serve the same nation.
It scarcely needs saying that this principle is endangered today, not just in Britain but in every nation where people are free to express their differences. We begin to fear that differences alone will destroy us, should we lose the remaining threads that bind us. Elizabeth II was strong thread.