We knew the words would be uttered one day, but it was still a shock to hear them. The Queen is dead.
Of course, we knew the moment was coming. When a photograph was released on Tuesday showing the monarch welcoming her newest prime minister – her 15th – at Balmoral, her face looked unfamiliarly gaunt. The Queen was in her 90s and we are all mortal, even those whose blood flowed deepest blue. And yet the announcement that she had died on Thursday afternoon will shake this country very deeply, for reasons we may not fully grasp.
Plenty will say the nation has lost its grandmother, that we are a family bereaved of its matriarch – and that comparison is not so wide of the mark. Not because everyone knew or loved the Queen like a relative, because obviously that is not true. But the comparison holds in this much narrower sense: she was a fixed point in our lives, a figure of continuity when all around was in constant flux. Everything has changed since the day in 1952 when she inherited the throne. That country – of black-and-white television, gentlemen in hats, and Lyons Corner Houses – and this one would barely recognise each other. The one thing they have – had – in common was her.
She was woven into the cloth of our lives so completely, we had stopped seeing the thread long ago. It was not just the coins, the banknotes and the letterboxes. It was the fact that you could hear a song called Her Majesty, from a different lifetime, written by a group that broke up half a century ago, and the majesty they were serenading was the same person who still reigned. Longevity plays strange tricks like that. My grandmother was born in 1906 and died nearly 30 years ago, and yet the monarch for most of her adult lifetime was this same queen. Elizabeth was the head of state of this country for more than 70 years.
As with parenting, so with serving as the national figurehead: a big part of the job is simply showing up. Elizabeth understood that very deeply, realising that continuity amid turbulence was the great value that a monarchy could add to a democratic system. That was why she never countenanced an abdication, no matter her age or infirmity. In her view, the 1936 disavowal of the throne by her uncle Edward VIII after a mere 325 days was a trauma that was never to be repeated. The monarch’s job was to stay put, a steady centre in a swirl of chaos.
Of course, there was more to it than that. She made scrupulous neutrality appear easy, a simple matter of doing and saying nothing. But, as her son – the new king – demonstrated through his long, long apprenticeship, it’s harder than it looks. To locate the neutral ground requires not only a self-restraint that has always eluded Charles, but also an intimate familiarity with the terrain. The Queen’s diligence with her red boxes was well known, but those Westminster hands who had dealings with her insisted that she had an unusually canny grasp of politics and diplomacy.
Footage that surfaced a year or so before her death showed her working the room at a G7 reception in 1991. Watching her move from Helmut Kohl to George Bush the elder, gently managing Ted Heath even as he, and several other men, talked over her, left little doubt that she was a first-rate operator.
The proof of her achievement was in how little her subjects knew her, or at least her convictions. The precursor of The Crown was Peter Morgan’s West End play The Audience, imagining her private weekly meetings with multiple prime ministers. Naturally, the dramatist longs for conflict, and the strongest clash Morgan generated was between the sovereign and Margaret Thatcher over apartheid South Africa, with Elizabeth siding with the Commonwealth and against her PM in seeking sanctions. The same episode was recounted in The Crown. It stood out, in part, because it was so rare: over seven decades there were almost no other public clashes between the sovereign and her governments, and vanishingly few intrusions by the monarch into politics. (Even the South Africa incident was based on a 1986 report in the Sunday Times that was sourced to anonymous advisers to the Queen, rather than anything Elizabeth herself ever said out loud.)
The result was that an epoch that witnessed enormous social upheavals, a shift to the demotic and democratic in manners and mores and an end to deference – an age that could have proved disastrous, if not terminal, for a feudal institution such as monarchy – instead saw royalty cement its position. Republicanism was a lost cause in the Elizabethan era, even as the notion of allocating any other role in public life according to genetic bloodline would have been dismissed as an indefensible throwback.
Advocates of an elected head of state struggled to gain traction for the simple reason that the Queen did the job so well. Republicans could only argue that it was a fluke, that although the lottery of heredity had thrown up a winner this one time, there was no guarantee it would do so again. But it was no good. For as long as she was there, the monarchy seemed to make sense – an illogical, irrational kind of sense, but sense all the same.
And what was the core of this appeal? Self-restraint, a conspicuous sense of duty and an old-fashioned work ethic – manifested most recently in her determination to play a part in her platinum jubilee celebrations, despite what were discreetly referred to as “episodic mobility problems” – were admirable, but they do not explain the emotional hold Elizabeth held over the nation she served so long. The key lies instead in an event that predated her becoming queen, that predated even her adulthood.
For what is the foundational event of modern Britain, the moment that functions as our national creation myth? It is the second world war, and specifically 1940, when Britain stood alone against fascism. It’s been said that that story – Churchill against Hitler – has replaced the Christian gospels as the bedrock narrative of good and evil by which our society orients itself. Every moral predicament, every ideological dispute, is ultimately viewed through it or measured against it.
Mostly, that period has passed from memory into history. The last human link with the war, the last person in British public life who played a role in it, was the Queen. She was on the balcony, in uniform, alongside Winston Churchill on VE Day. Her husband fought in the Royal Navy. Watch the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech and you’ll see that after George VI delivers his landmark address, girding the nation to be steadfast in the face of the Nazi menace, the teenage Elizabeth is there to embrace him.
The Queen connected us to the defining event in our modern national life, the event from which we still draw pride and purpose. That connection did not need spelling out; even the merest nod in its direction exerted enormous power. Recall her TV message to the nation at the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, just as the first, unfamiliar lockdown began. She counselled that we had endured greater hardships before and come through them. Invoking the definitive wartime anthem, she promised “we will meet again”.
This was a mighty bond and it endured through the entire postwar era, a period that perhaps ends only now with her death. She reminded us of our finest hour.
We enter a new future now. There will be a different head on the coin, different words for the national anthem. The one element in our collective life that was consistently, reliably the same – tying the Britain of Vera Lynn and ration books to the Britain of Dua Lipa and Twitter – has gone.
Many will be mourning a woman they once saw visit a school or open a hospital; the sender of a birthday telegram to a parent or grandparent; the incarnation of the crown that their son or daughter swore an oath and risked their life to defend. There will be talk of the national values she embodied.
But millions will now be mourning something more intimate and more precious: the loss of someone who has been a permanent fixture for their – our – entire lives. Her death will prompt memories of all that has passed these last 70 years, and all those others who we loved and lost. There is grief contained within grief. Today we mourn a monarch. And in that very act, we also mourn for ourselves.