Queen Elizabeth’s Civilizational Work
I loved the Queen. This appreciation starts here, from love. I have loved the Queen — Britain’s Elizabeth II — my whole long-ish American life.
Which is strange (or not): Britons are always amused when another American professes love for their Queen, and professes it emphatically. There are legions of us, we are told: American devotees of the Queen. Which doesn’t really compute: Given our early history, when colonial America threw off the yoke of the English monarch almost 250 years ago and mounted a bloody revolution, determined not to be dependent subjects but an independent nation with our own history to chart; and given our severe anti-aristocratic DNA, which genetically should put us off forever from relating to hereditary and thus unearned rank and privilege — positions I avowedly share — this attachment to the Queen should not be.
Further, I am of the liberal and not of the conservative bent, like the Queen, though being left-of-center rather than far-left, perhaps “moderate” is the operative word here, explaining why I feel such an affinity with the Queen. The power and the glory of moderation.
And now the Queen is gone — she died Thursday, September 8, at age 96 — and I mourn her. So many thoughts and memories pour forth, also conclusions about her 70-year reign. The main one is: Elizabeth II shepherded an empire into the family of nations —a historic public service.
Apart from being perhaps the planet’s most recognizable woman, Queen Elizabeth has been an enduring fixture of American life. Her long reign, and the Special Relationship between Britain and America, have threaded prominently through our post-World War II history, a constant reminder we had close family, and allies, overseas. Like many Americans, my first experience watching a television, in elementary school, was seeing the young queen anointed in what clearly was a historic occasion — a coronation — in a place called Westminster Abbey. A bookworm who hoovered magazines like Life and Time, I knew that, earlier, the royal family had stayed on in London during the Blitz, when Hitler’s Germany rained bombs on the city, refusing to abandon their posts or their countrymen. At age 18 Princess Elizabeth joined the women’s branch of the British Army. These acts of courage and patriotism I wondered if I could match.
Like most, I have links in that attachment to the Queen specific to me. In grad school in Italy in the late 1960s, my roommate and I found that when out hitchhiking on the autostrada (we were penniless wanderlusts), the “Queen Elizabeth look” — pantsuit, scarf, handbag — landed us the better, safer rides. In the late ’70s, when my husband-to-be and I were courting, we chanced across the Queen and Prince Philip, zipping past in motorcade, while touring Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello: Getting the Queen’s slow-motion wave seemed….a blessing. And there was a prompt closer to home: To new friends I’d describe my mother as looking like Queen Elizabeth (and my father like Jimmy Stewart). A film clip of a very young Elizabeth brushing her father’s hair back from his forehead struck me deeply: I too was close to my father.
Altogether, the Queen has been central to my vision of England, a land I love: the land of Shakespeare first and foremost; of Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Eliot (George and T.S., American expat), the sui generis Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Hilary Mantel. Of Disraeli and Churchill; of Parliament, Big Ben, and, yes, Westminster Abbey. Of the abolitionists and the suffragists. Of the British Museum, the British Library, the National Gallery of Art. Of Oxford, Cambridge, King’s College Choir. Of the world’s best theatre and finest acting: Olivier, Gielgud, Scofield, Dench, Mirren, Day-Lewis. Of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Salisbury Cathedral. Of Stonehenge, the mystery of. Of “Keep Calm and Carry On” and stiff upper lip. And, yes, Harrod’s department store and the English Premier Soccer League.
Of course, the reason Queen Elizabeth loomed so large was this: She presided over an empire, an empire that, once upon a time, spanned the entire world. The British Empire came into being in an earlier stage of historical evolution — the Age of Conquest, the Age of Exploration. England, a nation the size of Kansas, explored widely, it conquered the world. It promoted its empire as “liberal imperialism,” bringing rule of law, administrative organization, and, not incidentally, established the capacious English language as the world’s lingua franca. At its zenith, it was said during the clock’s daily circuit, “the sun never sets” on the British Empire.
And yet, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the sun did set: 20 countries of the empire chose independence, the empire “devolving” into a commonwealth, with membership voluntary, which today is an active 52-nation entity promoting development and democracy. While “devolution” may sound benign, it was not always: The exits of Kenya and Nigeria were especially hard-fought and bloody; so was the fraternal strife between England and Ireland. But for the most part, the path to devolution, to final dissolution of empire, went relatively smoothly. Elizabeth brought, writes The Atlantic’s Tom McTague, “more harmony than discord.” Which is historically remarkable, astonishing actually: Most empires, upon dissolution, result in endless bloody splintering of the once-subject nations, with the home country suffering political collapse, even civil war, even extinction. (See: Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian empires. A would-be tsar of the former Russian empire is trying to resuscitate it by retaking a former colony, Ukraine.)
That this transition, from world-straddling empire to commonwealth, has gone relatively smoothly — and will continue, as more member countries look to their futures — can be credited to England’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth, whose humanity and dignity she brought to the table with other heads of state throughout her reign. As head of state, she did not play a political role; that’s the bailiwick of the Prime Minister and Parliament. (Historian Walter Bagehot described this as the “dignified” and the “efficient” division of labor.) She did not give interviews, so we don’t know the evolution of her political thought. She kept diaries, but they can’t be released for 30 years. We do know she did battle with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over South Africa: Thatcher, for economic reasons, did not want to impose sanctions on the heinous apartheid regime, while the Queen did. (A headline read “Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher.”) Nelson Mandela, the South African hero who ultimately defeated apartheid, was, per CNN, the Queen’s favorite head of state.
However she did it, she did it splendidly, magically even: Elizabeth — who oversaw an empire’s unraveling — goes to her grave beloved. Not necessarily in the former colonies: As a Washington Post headline put it, “In former British colonies, ghosts of past haunt mourning for Queen.” But give the Queen her due: She spent her very long reign making recompense for regimes before her time, notably those of other great queens with whom she is compared — Elizabeth I and Victoria (the ironies of history). To make that leap, we can imagine her making an internal odyssey: from the Age of Conquest and Exploration — recall her speech dedicating her life, “whether it be long or short,” was to serve “our great imperial family” — to our present ethos (thank Heaven!), the Age of the Sovereign Individual and of Human Rights. Last year her son Charles, now king, acknowledged to Barbados “the appalling atrocity of slavery.” (England abolished slavery in 1807, well before America did in 1862, enabled by our visionary president Abraham Lincoln.)
Upon the death of any popular leader, there is always the question: how to go on? Addressing the more existential question — Quo vadis, Britannia? — the headline of The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland’s column states it succinctly: “The Queen’s death will shake this country deeply — she was a steady centre amid constant flux.” Further, the death of a monarch always raises questions of the continuing viability of the crown itself. As British-American writer John Cassidy of The New Yorker, taking the public pulse, writes: “[T]he idea of a hereditary monarch serving as the head of a large democratic state seems like an anachronism,” and yet, “the British monarchy remains, on the face of things, a highly popular political institution in the U.K.”
“Highly popular,” indeed, in the case of Elizabeth II. Who did British better than Her Majesty? And while a performance, it could not be an act; it must flow from authenticity. The adulation and warm love now being expressed for the Queen bespeaks that authenticity: In the Queen, her public saw reflected its best British self — decency, equilibrium, seriousness of purpose. This of course requires a monarch of character: History is replete with “nobility” visiting misery and havoc on their people. Not so Elizabeth, whom some now dub “Elizabeth the Good,” a tonic honorific in an era of the anti-hero. Yet, even good character isn’t enough; it takes conscious commitment to Duty, renewed daily. The Queen is getting highest marks for doing that Duty — a nation-unifying, nation-saving act. More than a fixture or a grandmother figure, she was a hard-working force for good, receiving two days before she died Britain’s newest Prime Minister.
And I will note: How elevating it is that the passing of a woman, and a woman “of a certain age,” generates such near-universal respect — a rare thing.
In sum, this all is civilizational work — to the good, to the constructive, to the higher. Civilizations can degrade (see again: the anti-hero). In point of fact (as the Brits say), capital-C Civilization is on the back foot, and slipping badly, with the momentum now going to the lawless and amoral and violent strongmen gaining primacy around the world, taking it by force and intimidation.
This is the sad case with America: Anti-democratic forces — irrational, law-breaking, and armed to the hilt — have hijacked a major political party and are winning elections at all levels, with the stated intent, once in power, to “make America great again” — “great” being consonant with the gross inequality of slavery, savage treatment of native Americans, and bitter white supremacism.
Which is why this small-d and capital-D American Democrat can see the utility of a national figure who, over time and through “constant flux,” represents — embodies — like a guiding light, the very best in a people. At present, but also for a very long time now, we have not had that figure, that immanence, reflecting back to us America’s beautiful foundational principles and character. Abraham Lincoln is, as they say, “not available”; he’s also been hijacked by the above-cited MAGA party.
As Britain and America strive to navigate the present chaos and churn, the civilizational example set by Queen Elizabeth II can point the way. She made dignity and duty — make that Duty — not only appealing, but successful, magnificently so. It is as if — judging by the extraordinary attention given her death, both in the U.K. and internationally — the world finally comprehends the value of such Duty, how it delivers: to humanity, to comity, to peace. It is up to all of us to pick up the mantle. Doing so, let us do as this Queen always did: Keep calm and carry on.