One who never turned her back but marched breast forward, Never doubted clouds would break, Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph, Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep to wake. —Robert Browning
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Edinburgh, August 2014— “Oh, we’ll keep The Queen.”
A chat in a pub off the Royal Mile, with a Scottish friend eager to vote “aye” in the upcoming Independence Referendum. I had asked him what, if Scotland became independent, they’d do about their Head of State.
“How do you know The Queen will want to keep you?” I replied.
“Ach, she will. We’re part of her family.”
In an odd way that assertion by a crusty Scot symbolized Her Late Majesty’s unique appeal to all peoples. For she demonstrated, better than anyone else, the enduring value of constitutional monarchy. That is to say, a system of government where the head of a nation is a symbol, not a politician. Today with the wreckage of politicians at every hand, we might wish to think of it as more than an anachronism.
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Churchill made this case at The Queen’s Coronation in 1953…
In our island, by trial and error and by perseverance across the centuries, we have found out a very good plan. Here it is: The Queen can do no wrong. Bad advisers can be changed as often as the people like to use their rights for that purpose. A great battle is won: crowds cheer The Queen. What goes wrong is carted away with the politicians responsible. What goes right is laid on the altar of our united Commonwealth and Empire.”
And amid so many words on September 8th, came a poignant paean to monarchy by Mark Steyn…
Not a lot survives from 1952. Harry Truman was in the White House, Joe Stalin was in the Kremlin, Chairman Mao had just taken over in China. The British Empire was still a phrase taken seriously: it was not yet a joke, a punchline, and then a hate crime. Truman, Stalin, Mao are all long gone, but, until today, The Queen endured….
Is the monarchy anything to do with the unrivaled record of the Britannic inheritance? Working for the Free French in London during the war, Simone Weil found herself pondering why, among the European powers, only Britain had maintained “a centuries-old tradition of liberty.” She was struck by the paradox of the Westminster system—that ultimate power is vested in one who cannot wield it in any practical sense. Except that, by the mere fact of her existence, she diminishes the politicians.
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So many had the same reaction to the news from Balmoral. It seemed surreal, inconceivable. Just two days earlier, she was inviting her 15th prime minister to form a government. As her father, in 1940, had invited Churchill, quipping: “I suppose you don’t know why I have sent for you.”
“Death places his icy democratic hand on kings, heroes and paupers,” Lady Diana Cooper wrote. And death has come to someone we simply cannot imagine our world without.
Characteristically, Winston Churchill noticed her qualities ahead of most. From Balmoral 94 years ago he wrote of Princess Elizabeth, aged two and never expected to reign: “The last is a character. She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.”
Two decades later, her accession now certain, Churchill saw her marriage as a timely tonic for gloomy, troubled postwar Britain: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” he declared. “And millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel.”
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“The great thing is to last and get your work done, and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.” Her Majesty was the living embodiment of Hemingway’s maxim. She saw and heard and understood everything. She spoke only of what she knew. And she lasted. My, did she last.
Despite the ceremony and glitter, the Sovereign’s job is mostly dull, hard, slogging work. Not many nonagenarians are capable—mentally or physically—of meeting that crushing workload. Her Majesty learned and understood. She could engage knowledgeably with a Kenyan potentate about East African economics. She could chat about youthful dreams with children in distant reaches of the Commonwealth she loved. The day before she died she sent condolences to the people of Saskatchewan over a tragic mass murder. To the last, she got her work done.
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To mark her loss, the Hillsdale College Churchill Project republished “The Queen and Mr. Churchill,” a 2016 tribute by Professor David Dilks. It is quite beautiful. You should read it.
For it fell to Winston Churchill, her first prime minister—to define “this fair and youthful figure…heir to all our traditions and glories [and] to our united strength and loyalty.” Gazing at her photo “in a white dress and with long white gloves, displaying that enchanting smile which lights up her face as if a blind had suddenly been raised,” the Prime Minister mused: “Lovely, inspiring. All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part.”
Admiration grew to attachment, attachment to adoration. During their weekly meetings her private secretary, Tommy Lascelles, reported “gales of laughter” coming from the audience room: “Winston generally came out wiping his eyes.”
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In 1955, it was time finally for him to go. Her Majesty and Prince Philip attended an unprecedented private dinner at Number 10. In her own hand The Queen wrote to thank the man to whom “I owe so much, and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful.” Sir Winston’s reply was touching and heartfelt:
Our Island no longer holds the same authority or power that it did in the days of Queen Victoria. A vast world towers up around it and after all our victories we could not claim the rank we hold were it not for the respect for our character and good sense and the general admiration not untinged by envy for our institutions and way of life. All this has already grown stronger and more solidly founded during the opening years of the present Reign, and I regard it as the most direct mark of God’s favour we have ever received in my long life that the whole structure of our new-formed Commonwealth has been linked and illuminated by a sparkling presence at its summit.
“And if you will allow the remark in parenthesis, ladies and gentlemen,” Professor Dilks added: “Do you not sometimes long for someone at the summit of our public life who can think and write at that level?”
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Those of us “of a certain age” lived through those times. Twenty-nine prime ministers and presidents; Cold War and recurrent hot wars; Churchill’s attempts for world understanding. An association, unique among expired empires, morphed into a Commonwealth of 56 countries and 2.4 billion people.
Americans remember how, after 9/11, at the Changing of the Guard, The Queen caused the Coldstream Guards to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Britons remember how she got them through 1992, that “annus horribilis,” The Irish remember her 2011 visit to the Republic, so vital to rift-healing. And only recently, during the Covid lockdowns, we all remember her assuring us: “We’ll meet again.”
And there in the mind’s eye we will always picture her, waving a white-gloved hand, whilst some born of later generations may wonder perhaps what all the fuss is about. We who loved her for qualities now in scarce supply, know exactly what it is about. She lives on, in memory and majesty.
“She was the Best of Us,” by Andrew Roberts