Even though Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was 96 when she died Thursday, I find the news almost impossible to comprehend.
Growing up as a college, and then graduate, student at the University of St. Andrews, where Will and Kate met, I found the Queen was a living part of every day. Her picture was ubiquitous, in every building. St. Andrews was a conservative place, with more than its share of the high-bred folks, all of whom were lesser planets orbiting around the sun that was the royal family. Even as I marched into the university’s fabled debate society to have at it with my competitors in front of thousands, a rousing “God save the Queen!” capped every Latin chant. Elizabeth II was everywhere.
However, like something so omnipresent, it is easy to lose sight of what the Queen managed to personally do for the monarchy. In political risk terms — and I’ve taught the history of the British monarchy to British students, some who couldn’t believe that a mere American could fathom 1,000 years of their history — she has been one of the best rulers the United Kingdom has ever had.
Three of Elizabeth’s characteristics stand out. First, and she learned this at the feet of her adored father, George VI: The Queen was a plodder, doggedly going ahead with her public relations duties, come hell or high water, whether she was happy or sad, fulfilled or neglected, popular or out of fashion. In her quiet, dutiful way, she followed in the footsteps of both her father and her grandfather, George V, two popular kings. The other branch of the Windsor family — typified by the callow Edward VIII, the Queen’s tragic sister, Margaret, and now by her grandson Harry, the Duke of Sussex — might be more fun to hang out with at a party, but none of them could be counted on to go the distance, serving their country day in and day out, whatever the social and political weather. Doing this over many decades rightfully made Elizabeth II a legend.
Second, Elizabeth understood that the magic of the monarchy meant that she carefully tended the distance between the rulers and the ruled. Prince Philip’s ill-advised foray into television in the late 1960s, ludicrously using a BBC documentary to feebly attempt to make the royal family look “ordinary,” flopped miserably, just as did the “It’s a Royal Knockout” game show in the 1980s, brainchild of Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son. In both cases, the Queen was outwardly loyal to her errant family, but must have inwardly cringed. Elizabeth understood that people do not want the monarchy to be “just like us.” For regal majesty to survive, there simply must be distance.
Third, Elizabeth was rightfully a conservative in this most conservative of institutions. I am not talking specifically about her politics — which may well have been centrist — but rather how little her politics mattered. She knew, to the marrow of her bones, that the last thing the country wanted was a political monarch. The tragedy of her early life was precisely that her soon-to-be Nazi sympathizing uncle, David (Edward VIII), was far too outspokenly political for his (or former prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s) good. When Edward’s forced abdication to marry Wallis Simpson came about, Elizabeth’s brave but untested father, suffering from an almost debilitating shyness that came from his pronounced stutter, assumed a throne that both his wife and daughters came to believe killed him prematurely, thus setting the young Elizabeth on the throne.
For all these reasons her son, now Charles III, has an almost impossible act to follow. But worse, Charles’s present weaknesses will be painfully illuminated by his mother’s great strengths. Where Elizabeth talked about general duty to “the firm’s” basic public relations calling, Charles is more interested in either specific idiosyncratic projects (his decided views about architecture, or organic food) rather than the slog of opening regional swimming pools in Swindon. Where Elizabeth understood the majesty of monarchical distance, Charles talks unknowingly about making the whole edifice more accessible. Where no one knew the Queen’s political views, Charles is on record for hectoring ministers of all parties about their duty, which he seems to believe is to be a rather odd Liberal Democrat in his own image. All of this is dangerous, both for Charles specifically and for the furtherance of the monarchy as a whole.
Elizabeth II played her part so perfectly that, as the decades passed, she as an individual seemed to merge with the very institution of the monarchy itself; remember her first premier in the faraway 1950s was the great Winston Churchill. The problem with this is that the monarchy, as with every other great man-made institution, must be bigger than the person themselves; even kings and queens are just passing through while the Crown is forever.
In ruling so adroitly for so long, Elizabeth II’s success itself, and the ease with which she seemed to pull the whole thing off, makes following her little more than accepting a poisoned chalice. Her success will perhaps be Charles’s great problem.
This piece was originally published in The Hill.