Queen Elizabeth II, stable heart of Britain, belonged to the world

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She was not just the Queen of Great Britain – Elizabeth II belonged to the world. It is moving to see how the people of so many nations embraced this calm and emotionally reluctant woman who ruled a land that once spanned the world as an empire. During her decades at the helm, she found a different role, with the monarchy as the glue of continuity.

In the pantheon of post-war greats, Nelson Mandela is revered as the man who healed the wounds of his divided nation after years of captivity, Pope John Paul II is known for his spiritual and physical courage against Nazi and Communist dictatorships, and Martin Luther King Jr. is immortalized for his crusade against racial injustice. A number of world leaders have delivered moving speeches that have marked and even changed the course of history.

But the Queen? What heroic feats did she accomplish? What memorable lines did she utter to match the soaring rhetoric of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, not to mention the orotunda phrasing of her first prime minister, Winston Churchill? Yet Elizabeth would become the most recognizable human being on the planet. Millions of people paid attention when she spoke and, especially for work that was often most meaningful in her silences, what she embodied.

His talent must have seemed so unknowable while living a life exposed to the gaze of millions. Biographers and the watchful royal press have searched in vain for any memorable witticisms or opinions that the longest-serving monarch in British history has uttered in private. Yet each attempt to map his inner life ends up telling you more about the writer than the subject. When she allowed an opinion to shimmer through the careful color grading (as during her sometimes strained relationship with Margaret Thatcher), she was expressed in nuance or reported facial jerks – never in a confrontation.

One might have expected the subjects of his native United Kingdom to be intensely loyal to their local monarch. In 1969, for example, more Britons – 70% of the country – watched a TV show about a royal picnic where it handed out salad than saw the first man landing on the moon. The Scandinavians are equally proud of their royal families, the Dutch have long had their cycling queens and kings and the Japanese honorary emperors whose venerable dynasty is shrouded in greater antiquity and quasi-religious mystery than the house arrived from Windsor.

But the queen’s popularity around the world was unmatched. When she embarked on her first royal tour of Japan, a million people took to the streets of Tokyo to greet her. His speech at a state banquet broadcast by the cameras drew an audience of 75 million people, the highest recorded Japanese television audience to date.

His open-mindedness as much as his popularity astonished his hosts. Yet glasnost was not his goal, durability was. The Queen has always believed she had to “be seen to be believed”. Although his courtiers made mistakes, they were right to advise providing maximum exposure with minimum real privacy – a winning formula that suited his personal taste and inclination.

During Britain’s difficult times – think of the economic crises of the 1970s, the domestic divisions of the 1980s caused by mass unemployment – ​​the Queen continued to be honored abroad.

Republics in which the chief executive is also head of state, such as the United States and France, theoretically separate the failings of the individual from the dignity of the office. We remember how the Americans forgave President Bill Clinton the Monica Lewinsky affair. But when millions of people have watched Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron engage in a handshake contest in front of the cameras, the appeal of a well-behaved ruler becomes apparent. While the world occasionally indulges in leadership clowning, it ultimately yearns for respectability – and that was a quality Elizabeth had in abundance.

That’s not to say her family’s antics haven’t often let her down. If the Queen, it was said, “never made a mistake,” then some of her children could be compared to clodhopping rhinos. Elizabeth’s greatest flaw in the eyes of some Buckingham Palace courtiers as well as her subjects was ‘the ostrich’, ignoring disagreements in her family and home – such as the disaster of her eldest son’s unhappy marriage and the madness of his second son Andrew’s friendships, including the damaging bond with Jeffrey Epstein. She sometimes failed where a more frontal response was required – perhaps the downside of stealth. But in this she was typical of a woman of her time and class.

Slowly, she adapted – embracing her sly humor more by taking part in a James Bond-themed Olympics opening and allowing Queen’s Brian May to play guitar atop Buckingham Palace. For her 70th birthday, she released a film of herself having tea with Paddington Bear.

Queen Elizabeth was a fixed constant in changing times and the stable heart of Britain’s strange but enduring constitution. She was also very good herself – familiar and mysterious at the same time. This is what we can miss, above all.

More information on the monarchy in the Bloomberg Opinion Archive:

• Britain begins to think the unthinkable: life after the Queen

• Has the time come for the British monarchy? not so fast

• Prince Charles of Wales and his dissatisfactions

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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