Queen Elizabeth II leaves behind a kingdom deeply grieving and badly shaken by her loss. For many, the monarch and monarchy had become indivisible. Even though Prince Charles has had almost a lifetime to prepare for his succession, the institution will be seriously challenged. The expressions of grief and heartfelt tributes will throw a cloak also over a deeper uncertainty. For how long will the union over which she reigned — the United Kingdom of the three nations of Britain and Northern Ireland — outlive her?
The 96-year-old monarch’s failing health was no secret. She had been obliged to miss many of the events in this year’s national celebrations of her platinum jubilee. The shock of her death will be no less profound for that. No other public figure was held in greater affection. In a nation beset by economic troubles, scarred by the polarisation of its politics and uncertain of its place in the world, the Queen was a vital anchor.
By any standards her reign was remarkable, spanning the UK’s epochal transition from empire to an influential but second-tier global power. For the most part these were difficult decades and, as Brexit and its aftermath have shown, the nation has still to find a place in the world with which it can be comfortable. Yet the words most commonly associated with Queen Elizabeth II have been stability and continuity.
Her roles were many. As constitutional head of state, she provided a counterpoint to the nation’s often turbulent politics, offering private advice to no fewer than 14 prime ministers. Political leaders came and went. The Queen seemed indestructible. Only this week, she asked her 15th prime minister — Liz Truss — to form a government in the wake of the Tory party’s defenestration of Boris Johnson. As head of the Commonwealth, she did more than any other to build new relationships with the nations that emerged from empire. As an ambassador to the world, she was peerless. Nothing could beat an invitation to a sleepover at Buckingham Palace.
The fixed point in this was the affection in which the monarch was held by her subjects in just about every corner of the kingdom. Those who called themselves republicans would often add a coda that any rewriting of the constitution could safely be deferred until after the Queen’s reign.
Politics has become less respectful and more divisive. Ties between the nations of the union have become fraught — Brexit reopened the question as to whether Northern Ireland’s future lies in the UK or with the Irish Republic. The Queen stood above all this — providing the cement in a fracturing union.
In a curious way, it was fitting that she spent her last weeks at Balmoral, her beloved estate in the Scottish Highlands. Aides said she had found the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 perhaps the most worrying moment of her reign. To her mind, the monarchy and the union were as one.
The Queen was a woman of her age, susceptible like most to nostalgia. On occasion she seemed a little too much a prisoner of the desiccated royal courtiers who seemed determined she should not break free of the past. I spoke to her at some length only once, when she attended a private lunch at the Financial Times. The occasion was preceded by all manner of restrictive instructions from her courtiers at the palace as to who she would speak to and on what terms. Politely, we ignored them. What followed was an open and free-flowing discussion. Witty, reflective and occasionally acerbic, she showed every sign of enjoying it.
For all the flummery and formality, the public, I think, caught some of this. Yes, she was the Queen, but she also understood her people. The UK in its present condition — deep in economic crisis, politically and geographically divided and still battling its European neighbours — will struggle mightily to weather her loss.