Queen Elizabeth II was a head of state for longer than any of the other world leaders she ever met and had come to epitomize the United Kingdom. Most of its citizens were often happy to think of themselves as her subjects. It is the end of not just an era but of an epoch in history, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.
She died just two days after appointing her last Prime Minister. Her first had been Winston Churchill, a man who had taken part in the British Army’s last cavalry charge at Omdurman in Sudan but by 1952 had nuclear weapons at his disposal. Queen Elizabeth II was to live longer than he did and bear witness to even greater historical change.
Her domains still stretched across the world when she became Queen in 1952. Indeed she was in Kenya, which the United Kingdom was only to quit after a vicious colonial war, when news reached her that her father, King George VI, had died.
Yet she became the first British monarch to visit Dublin since Irish independence, to pay her respects not just to Ireland’s President but to the leaders of the 1916 Rising against British rule, at the spot where they were shot in her grandfather’s name.
Indeed, in any of the republics that are Britain’s near-neighbours, it might have been diplomatically appropriate to refer to her as Queen Elizabeth but if one simply said “the Queen”, nobody would have thought that you meant anyone else.
Within the United Kingdom, she had become almost beyond criticism, which hadn’t always been the case. Like her subjects she had the misfortune to live through periods of raging inflation, which left her having to ask for more taxpayers’ money to finance her role and her lifestyle.
The Queen lived through much more than that of course. The retreat from Empire to its near conclusion and other massive events as well. The UK joined the EU not long before her Silver Jubilee and left it shortly before the Platinum Jubilee.
Her views on events were almost entirely kept private but at least some of the speculation was probably quite close to the mark. She was instinctively suspicious of change, especially constitutional change. It is hard to believe that she was an enthusiast for joining the Common Market in 1973 but it was outrageous claim to suggest that she supported withdrawal from the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Her overheard remark that the Scots should think very hard about whether they should vote to leave the United Kingdom was an easily decoded message about her own views on the matter. Her question “why did none of you see this coming?” about the 2008 financial crash was a rare indication of what she thought about the politicians whose advice she was obliged to take and the central bankers who put her face of the currency to lend it some credibility.
For most of the British people, she did indeed lend credibility to not just the pound sterling but to the entire creaking state apparatus of a country without a written constitution. The Queen had no choice but to accept her prime minister’s advice to suspend parliament in 2019 but the fact that the prorogation, as it was officially known, had to be done her name allowed judges to rule that the advice was unlawful, unconstitutional and of no effect.
The longest-serving Queen will be succeeded by the man who has been heir to the throne throughout her long reign. That is meant to be one of the strengths of a monarchy, that the proclamation will literally state “the Queen is dead, long live the King”. But Charles has a very hard act to follow indeed.
That is a question for another day though. For now, the outpouring of grief will be genuine, at the loss of the only British monarch most people have ever known. And at the loss of the continuity and certainty that she represented in a world that we have been sharply reminded remains a difficult and dangerous place.
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