Valedictory: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Valedictory: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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 Eng­land 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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Queen
Time magazine’s Woman of the Year, 1952.

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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QueenThose 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.

 

Further reading

“She was the Best of Us,” by Andrew Roberts

“The Queen and Mr. Churchill,” by David Dilks

“Why Our Head of State is the TRUE Defend­er of Free­dom,” by Peter Hitchens

3 thoughts on “Valedictory: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

  1. Richard,

    A love­ly trib­ute – thank you, from an ex-pat Brit who was born short­ly after Eliz­a­beth came to the throne.

    Over the com­ing few days, as we say our last farewells, there will be tens of thou­sands of words spo­ken by dig­ni­taries from all nations. But I can’t help feel­ing that none will be able to con­dense the feel­ings of the British Nation and Com­mon­wealth into five words as apt­ly as Padding­ton Bear. “Thank you Ma’am, for everything”.

    Dave.

  2. If I may haz­ard a com­ment: that is amongst the best things you have ever writ­ten, just out­stand­ing. It cap­tures The Queen perfectly.

    As a true blue Eng­lish­man, thank you from the bot­tom of my heart.

  3. Did my coro­na­tion mug received 1954 make me aware of sis­ter­hood? Or did it orig­i­nate from Geordie aun­ties, my mother’s rel­a­tives? Pro­to­cols of glove-wear­ing per­co­lat­ed from the high­est to the low­est of beings. Head girls, uni­forms, role mod­els and mod­els of behav­iour in line or out of line? Eliz­a­beth II impressed me in my lifetime.

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