Last updated on September 7th, 2023 at 07:14 am
In the early evening on Thursday, 8 September 2022, the following announcement appeared on the official Royal website. It was also posted on the railings at Buckingham Palace, where the flag had already been lowered.
“The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon.
The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”
News channels, alerted by earlier reports that the Queen had been placed under medical supervision and that senior royals were gathering at Balmoral, went into overdrive. Most people in Britain and the Commonwealth, and many around the world, will be deeply saddened by the news. Some, of course, will be untouched; it is not relevant to them, for whatever reason. Thoughtful republicans will be respectful of the person and the loss. A minor few, bitter and full of hate, express views that would disgust anyone with a shred of humanity. Personally, as well as feeling sorrow at her passing and sympathy for her family, I feel curiously empty, odd. The late Queen, Britain’s longest serving monarch, came to the throne in 1952, aged just 25. She has been part of my entire life, a constant among all the ripples and occasional shockwaves that have run through our country. Though not a close member of the family, it is as though we all knew and could rely upon her. Tomorrow feels strange, uncertain.
It is hard to convey what a profound moment this is in Britain’s history. Apart from a brief period in the 17th century, there have been monarchs on the thrones of England and Scotland since the 9th century. Most of these would be considered absolute monarchs. Since 1688, Britain has been building a constitutional monarchy, in which the Sovereign, whilst Head of State, has no party political role and legislative power rests with an elected parliament. The late Queen was the epitome of a constitutional monarch; she reigned, but did not rule.
Our new King, Charles III, has a tough act to follow. Not only that, but the United Kingdom has a shiny, brand-new, Prime Minister too, Liz Truss. The new King and Prime Minister will need to learn together – though I suspect that Charles has had rather more training for the role.
Elizabeth II worked with 14 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill when she came to the throne in 1952, to Boris Johnson. All surviving prime ministers – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson – have remarked on the late Queen’s wisdom, which of course was partly based on 70 years in the same job. On her 21st birthday in 1947, before she came to the throne, she made a pledge:
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
She certainly delivered on that. Everything you hear about her tells of her tremendous work ethic, but even the most dedicated worker does not keep going until they are 96. Queen Elizabeth II was working right up to 6 September, at least, when she accepted the resignation of Boris Johnson and invited Liz Truss to form a government as her 15th prime minister. In the photos, she looked tiny, and a little frail, but beaming.
As well as being hereditary Head of State of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth was Head of State of 14 other Commonwealth Nations: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. You would expect to see tributes from those governments, I hope, but the accolades have flooded in from friends, allies and not so sures from all over the world. Flags have been lowered and news of her passing has been on countless front pages. This was a woman held in huge respect, and affection, way beyond the boundaries of the Commonwealth. You have to remember that she has not only met many current heads of government, but their predecessors too. What inside knowledge she must have had. She met 13 of the last 14 Presidents of the USA, from Truman onward (Lyndon B Johnson was the one that missed out). US President Biden and former presidents Carter, Clinton, George W Bush, Obama and Trump, all sent their condolences. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin did – though am I being uncharitable in thinking that, exceptionally, these may not have been entirely heartfelt?
Queen Elizabeth II has been the focus of our national identity for a very long time. She was, I think, a unifier – and that is a very great thing. Some have likened her to the nation’s grandmother. The world of 70 years ago, black and white and grimy, seems almost like an alien planet to us now. She was young and lovely. Somehow, she always appeared to embrace both tradition and progress. In 1952, Britain was still emerging from a war that crippled us. There was a housing crisis, rationing, the NHS was in its infancy, it was still a very class-ridden society and Britain had started the necessary process of dismantling its Empire. The Queen was at the centre of a period of unprecedented change – not just the end of Empire, but the Cold War, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, swinging sixties, the Pill, decline of industry, strikes, market deregulation, invasion of the Falkands, the privatisation of utilities, collapse of the Soviet Union, devolved governments in the UK, the microchip, world-wide web, the Corona virus pandemic, the growing recognition of climate change – right up to seeing war in Europe again (which, like the rest of us, she must have thought unthinkable), when Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year.
Others have written far more eloquently and knowledgably about Queen Elizabeth II than I ever could. But I wanted something on A Bit About Britain that paid respect to this remarkable woman and to mark the start of a new era – the new Carolingian (or Carolean). Thank you, Ma’am, for everything. Rest in peace and God bless you.
God Save the King.