Remembering My Queen
“Elizabeth led a life of both great privilege and personal sacrifice. Even those who resented the former, acknowledged the latter.” – Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker
As an Englishman I have of course been asked over the past few days how I feel about the death of Queen Elizabeth and what it means to the British.
There exists a powerful sense of loss, of uncertain change, a sadness that an era has passed. Elizabeth was everywhere, emblematic of the nation: on all the stamps, the bank notes, the coins, the flags, even the post boxes. She also actively sought out the public, making hundreds of personal appearances every year until quite recently. Thus many British people have actually ‘met’ the queen, or at least had the honor of the Queen in their town.
Her calm demeanor, her antiquated accent and her unwavering political neutrality made her a unifying and respected leader. More than figurehead, she represented the essence of Britain.
It was her actions during the War that first endeared her to the British people. Rather than flee London when it was under constant attack in 1940 the Royal family stayed, in solidarity with those enduring The Blitz. When Buckingham Palace was bombed she famously declared “I am glad we have been bombed, now we can look the East End in the eye.” (The East End of London, around the docklands, took the brunt of the Blitz)
She volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army at age 18, when women under 30 were being conscripted. She tended her own allotment during the “Dig for Victory” campaign, when every garden and spare piece of land was used to grow food for a besieged nation.
These are the stories we English grew up on, a Queen determined to be of her people, and amongst her people. She inspired the British by being at once a prestigious Royal leader and one of us. Her experiences mirrored those of modern Britain. Three of her children divorced and she faced tragedy losing her Uncle to an IRA bomb and her daughter-in-law in a car crash.
What is often unheralded is her stewardship of the nation in what could have been a time of great angst and crisis. When Elizabeth took the throne at the age of 25 Britain still had an Imperial Empire. Over the decades, those nations gained their rightful independence, but remained part of the Commonwealth of Nations, with the Queen as its head, her presence ensuring a continuing a unique co-operative relationship with former colonies.
Her acknowledgement of the right of nations to self-governance made the ‘loss of empire’ a natural transition rather than a national trauma, creating a camaraderie of nations where there could have been antagonism. The British accepted the ‘loss’ because Elizabeth was fine with not being Empress, thus we were fine with no longer having an Empire.
In short, she was Britain in human form. Uniting rich and poor, immigrant and native, working class and aristocracy. What comes next is unknowable. What is certain is that this is truly the end of an era.