The death of Queen Elizabeth II this week was hardly a surprise, but it still came as a shock. She has been an ever-present part of all our lives, whatever our feelings about the monarchy. So immediately we begin recalibrating, assessing how her death will affect us and the way we feel about the world.
Because beyond the dues appropriate to the death of a world figure, inevitably she has represented something for each of us. This is perhaps remarkable, given that – as several commentators have pointed out – we actually knew so little about her. Often what we think we know is based on newspaper headlines or carefully tailored briefings by the Palace. A whole industry has grown up around telling us confidentially what the Queen really thinks, in spite or perhaps because of her having spent her long reign assiduously avoiding giving her opinion on anything.
This is constitutionally most proper, though in practice it has left a vacuum into which all kinds of competing opinions can take hold, a blank canvas on which we can make whatever picture of the Queen fits our worldview. So we need to differentiate between the obsequies due a generally revered old lady, and that picture we ourselves have each made of her. Her life, and now her death, have become mirrors on all that is good or all that is bad about our country. Take your pick.
We see in the Queen, in life and in death, only what we choose to see
Elizabeth was dutiful, aloof, hardworking, privileged, wise. She defended the status quo, gave her all for her people, hoarded her own family’s money without endowing a single hospital or university, brought together the Commonwealth, prevented a police investigation into her son’s activities, shepherded the country into the modern world, interfered unconstitutionally in government bills she didn’t like, became a rock for 15 prime ministers, pulled strings to avoid paying taxes.
It’s quite possible that all of these are true, yet most people reading this will only accept half of them. We only see in the Queen, in life and in death, what we choose. In doing so we do her a disservice, and ourselves.
A Frenchman speaks for Britain
Perhaps the truest view of her as she actually was, might come from those statesmen and women on the international stage who have come to know her well and aren’t inclined to allow deference to colour their judgement. One of the warmest and apparently most sincere tributes is from Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who at the moment would appear to have no reason to love this country. He said:
“She was one with her nation: she embodied a people, a territory, and a shared will. And stability: above all the fluctuations and upheaval of politics, she represented a sense of eternity.
“She held a special status in France and a special place in the hearts of the French people. No foreign sovereign has climbed the stairs of the Élysée Palace more often than she, who honoured France with six state visits and met each of its presidents. For her, French was not a mere relic of Normandy ancestry that persisted in so many customs, but an intimate, cherished language. The Queen of 16 kingdoms loved France, which loved her back. This evening, the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth are mourning their Queen. The people of France join them in their grief.”
This fulsome tribute has been greeted by her own people emotionally, since ironically it took a Frenchman to express what so many of her British admirers could not. Could not, perhaps, because of the stiff upper lip. But actually it is more likely to be because the English – we will omit the Scots, Welsh and Irish who have a much better record – have deliberately avoided serious discussion of who we are. (The English are a profoundly unserious people.) So when we make of the Queen an image which reflects our feelings, it is no wonder the result is confused. We have looked to the Queen to represent who we each think we are – as stalwart, colonial, steadfast or perfidious. Again, what we see in her are our own prejudices.
Can progressive politics ever accept a British-style monarchy?
It is too early to say whether we will make of Charles a similar mirror, or whether his already known passionate views leave less room for others to shape the monarchy to their own perceptions. East Anglia Bylines prides itself on being a progressive voice, and for some of us it may be difficult to envisage a monarchy, at least a monarchy as we have it at the moment, ever having a role in a progressive constitution. But the Queen (if not her family) was held in strong affection by many who would think of themselves as progressives. The disagreements on this point have been passionately reflected in discussions among the editorial team.
But at heart, we as a nation really aren’t fighting over whether the Queen upheld the status quo or whether Charles will prove a reformer. We’re fighting because we’re confused over who and what we are. Throwing preferred images at whoever occupies Buckingham Palace won’t help. Until we become more serious about understanding ourselves, we won’t be able to see the monarchy and understand our feelings about it clearly.