Her Majesty The Queen21 April 1926 – 8 September 2022
Otto English reflects on the passing of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch
Her Majesty The Queen is dead.
Although it shouldn’t be a shock that a 96-year-old woman in frail health should die, it still feels shocking all the same.
It is a moment that feels less like the turning of a page of history and more like the last line of the book.
In the coming days and weeks, Britons of all political persuasions might find themselves taken aback by the sense of loss they feel and that unexpected lump in the throat. As royal commentators, dressed in black, jostle inelegantly to sonorously pronounce the meaning of her passing there is just one immediate certainty: more uncertainty.
In the discombobulation to follow, we will be bombarded with clichés and exaggerations – but just one of them will be true: in war and peace, through boom and bust, the good times and the bad, the Queen has been the one constant in British life.
She played many parts in her life and had many identities. She was a wife, a mother, a marker of Christmas Day lunches, Head of the Commonwealth, and a global icon. She was the subject of art, literature, philately, punk songs and film. But for millions of Britons, she was simply The Queen. A figurehead who, like the sky above our heads and the earth beneath our feet, was reassuringly always there.
In her long dotage, she became something else – the nation’s grandmother; a sort of wise old owl onto whom we projected reflections of our own elderly loved ones. Those of us who have lost elderly relatives might start to feel that projection one last time.
Few commentators will dare say that she was not perfect – but, of course, she was not. Elizabeth Windsor, like all of us, had her flaws and failures.
Like monarchs throughout history, she was a fierce protector and sustainer of the dynasty – perhaps her greatest, if least acknowledged, achievement. She dragged the monarchy into the modern age, reinvented it as a model family, and made it relevant again.
She knew that her primary role was to preserve The Firm and, to that end, she could be ruthless. She cut off anyone, even those very close to her, who threatened the future of the Windsors.
Her private life was protected so tightly and completely that it was impossible to know much about the real woman behind the throne, but we know enough to say that she could be callous and uncaring as a mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and even as a friend.
And yet, frustratingly, for republicans like myself, she was hard to dislike and seemingly indomitable. That was, in part, down to a self-censoring and, at times, pathetically cowardly media. But it was also down to the Queen herself. The truth is that she performed her role brilliantly; she maintained the mystique of monarchy and did it with considerable charm and integrity.
None of her many very unlikable predecessors came close to that achievement and none of her descendants are likely to repeat it. Paradoxically, in doing the job so well, she may have set the bar so high that it is impossible to follow.
What happens now that the constant has gone and the future stands unwritten? In the weeks of uncertainty that follow, I suspect that conversation will come to eclipse all else.
In the meantime, many of us in the UK – even die-hard republicans – will undoubtedly find ourselves mourning and lamenting the passing of the Queen and the rare sense of certainty that she offered this ever more disunited kingdom.