“God Save the King.”
With four words, Liz Truss – charged with the gravest of tasks as a British prime minister of only two days standing – marked the end of the second Elizabethan era.
Her statement – a coda to a short speech marking the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday – was so jarring not simply because only Britons well into their seventies remembered hearing the phrase in public before.
But it also bookended an epoch in which the Queen became a global icon of leadership even though, and perhaps because, she was not a politician. In many ways, her influence was rooted simply in the fact that year after year, decade after decade, she was there – always.
And now she is gone.
During her 70-year reign, wars came and went, as did crises and tragedies and political scandals, pandemics and recessions.
She ascended a throne wobbling on the tremors of a crumbling Empire. She died with the kingdom that she kept together itself at risk of splintering as she slipped away in Scotland, where independence fervor is rising.
Elizabeth presided – distant, dutiful but ever present – over a turbulent age of women’s liberation, expanding gay and lesbian rights, de-industrialization and immigration that changed the face of her country. Spanning the Cold War and Northern Ireland’s civil war, Britain’s entry and acrimonious exit from the European Union and the disorientating spasms of a globalizing economy, the Queen was unmoved – a last link with a national heroic mythology forged during World War II.
From the days of black-and-white television to the technicolor and the internet ages to a time of ubiquitous mobile devices with which mourners snapped selfies outside Buckingham Palace after she died, the Queen was a constant presence.
Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, John F. Kennedy, Mao Zedong, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II all ruled and passed into history during the Queen’s long reign.
Almost everything about the world changed unrecognizably since the day in 1952 that she learned in Kenya that her father George VI was dead and she was queen. But Elizabeth, stoic and formal, was always there and always the same.
Her death, quiet and somehow sudden despite the fact she was 96, removed that bastion of constancy and steadiness – just at a moment when Britain and the world seem more disoriented and volatile than in decades.
King Charles III inherits a nation that is divided, economically on the ropes and bracing for an awful winter as high energy prices and inflation brought on by its showdown with Russia, as part of the new Cold War over Ukraine, exact a heavy cost. A second superpower conflict with China is brewing. And the extreme heat that scorched Britain in the Queen’s final, platinum jubilee summer, heralds a building climate disaster that could be especially perilous for her island nation.
Charles, who like President Joe Biden in a slightly different context, waited most of his lifetime to claim his head of state role, faces an impossible task in quickly restoring the leadership and stability that his mother provided over seven decades. He often seemed unfulfilled after long years of waiting, and the acrimonious collapse of his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, his sometimes pointed political jabs and a slightly quirky character mean he’s not yet as beloved as the Queen.
For nearly three-quarters of a century, Elizabeth was the monarchy – earning deference and respect even among a minority of subjects who saw the divine right of kings and queens as an absurd anachronism and the shattered marriages and misadventures of the Queen’s children and royal hangers-on as a retrograde symbol of a modern nation. Most Britons have never known the monarchy without her.
A sudden surge in republicanism seems unlikely, but the new King, and his heir apparent Prince William, the new Duke of Cornwall, must reshape the institution for the 21st century if it is to prosper or at least survive – probably in a scaled back form.
Abroad, the Queen’s passing could have equally consequential reverberations.
After a period of reflection, Commonwealth nations where she was head of state, like Canada and Australia, with young populations that have diversified far beyond British ancestry, may wonder whether it’s finally time to sever last links with the homeland.
And Britain’s search for a post-Brexit role as a middling world power will have to go forward without its most valuable foreign asset – a sovereign who was the most famous woman in the world and who most of the planet couldn’t remember not being around. In a way, she was part of everyone’s lives – a figure recognized and remembered across generations in a continuum now ended.
A global wave of grief
In Britain, the absence of the Queen will be startling. Her head is on almost every coin and stamp. People who made it to age 100 got a telegram for their monarch. This Christmas Day, people will settle down for the traditional royal broadcast after their turkey and trimmings and a new king will appear.
Reaction to her death underlined her reach.
There was a minute of silence at the US Open tennis championships and the lights went dark on the Eiffel Tower. Presidents, premiers and monarchs sent messages of sympathy ahead of what will surely be the most high-powered gathering of global leaders in decades at a state funeral in London.
The outpouring was testimony to the longevity that made her a global figure. Elizabeth’s role above politics, combined with her decades of ubiquity, meant she could rise above partisan divides and engage with successive global generations and governments of different partisan leanings. When someone outside Britain talked about “The Queen,” no one asked “which queen?”
Not every nation wanted her, however. Her position is, after all, an enduring symbol of Empire and colonial repression. A list of nations removed her as head of state, including Barbados last year. While rarely putting a foot wrong, the Queen’s overwhelming commitment to duty, and the stilted conventions and repressed emotions that surround the Crown may have hurt her family and her nation.
It was impossible, for instance, for the Queen’s sister, the late Princess Margaret, to marry her lover, Group Captain Peter Townsend, because he was divorced and the monarch was also the head of the Church of England.
The Queen’s seeming indifference, meanwhile, to the death of Diana in 1997, badly misjudged the mood of her subjects and she had to be cajoled into giving a televised address.
The Queen’s death could cause a new examination of Britain’s complicated constitutional arrangements and political system that goes beyond a possible new drive for an independence referendum north of the border.
While Britain is a far more equitable society than it was at the time of the coronation in 1953, the royal family still props up a class system that some Britons see as repressive. The gun carriages and the cavalrymen in ceremonial dress that will feature in her funeral cannot disguise Britain’s status as a faded military and diplomatic power.
Yet Elizabeth was also undeniably loved in her nation and overseas by millions.
Her high-level political skills were shaped amid the tedium of endless overseas tours, mundane small talk at official visits back home and in the crushing protocol of state dinners. And she was not just respected because she was famous – she surely must be the most photographed woman in human history – or because she just lasted longer than anyone else.
The Queen may have been constitutionally forbidden from engaging in partisan politics, but she was an extraordinary politician nonetheless.
Nicholas Dungan, an adjunct professor at Sciences Po in Paris and CEO of CogitoPraxis, a business and leadership consultancy, said that Elizabeth exemplified the highest elements of disciplined, professional leadership.
“You don’t need political power to be a leader. You don’t need hard power to be a leader. You need personal power to be a leader,” Dungan said, defining the essential qualities of leadership as self-possession, integrity and vision, all of which he said the Queen exhibited. “Her gift may be the inspiration that she gives us for the future as much as the service she gave us during her lifetime,” he said.
In her younger years, representing Britain abroad, Elizabeth brought glamor. Later on, she radiated experience and wisdom as a major historical figure. This is why even the most powerful men in the world – US presidents – seemed a little overwhelmed when they met her.
“Back when we were just beginning to navigate life as President and First Lady, she welcomed us with open arms and extraordinary generosity,” former President Barack Obama said Thursday, adding that he and his wife Michelle were awed by the Queen’s “legacy of tireless, dignified public service.”
Former President Donald Trump also seemed starstruck when he meet the Queen at Windsor Castle in 2018.
“What a grand and beautiful lady she was — there was nobody like her!” Trump said in a statement on Thursday.
Many Americans remember the Queen for her steadfast and swift reaction to the September 11, 2001, attacks when the US national anthem was played at Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and she consoled Britain’s traumatized ally with the words, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
A skillful leader
Elizabeth’s political acumen was on display in two episodes toward the end of her reign. In 2011, she became the first British monarch to go to Ireland since independence – a deeply sensitive trip given the historical animosity exemplified by her position and the sectarian battles between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland. Her visit was, however, hugely successful as she showed penance for the excesses of British colonial forces and helped ease distrust between London and Dublin.
In another gesture of reconciliation a year later, the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader during the Troubles in Northern Ireland who became deputy first minister following a peace agreement. The IRA had murdered the Queen’s beloved second cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten – a father figure to the new King, with a bomb aboard his boat in 1979.
A decade later, the Queen created another lesson in leadership during the pandemic. She mourned, masked and alone, at the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Her willingness to share in the solitude of her people at a time when gatherings were restricted contrasted with the drinking and partying behind closed doors in 10 Downing Street, which set off a chain of events that led to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ouster.
In a special message from Windsor Castle in April 2020 amid the deepest misery of the Covid-19 emergency, the Queen promised her subjects, who were isolated at home, that normal times would return. “We will meet again,” she said. She had poignantly borrowed the lyrics of wartime soldiers’ sweetheart, Vera Lynn, and recalled the royal family’s role in maintaining national morale during World War II, when she was a young princess, as she coaxed a new generation of Britons to succeed in their own finest hour.
Britain is now immersed in a prolonged period of national mourning, and her global admirers are getting used to the strange sensation of living in a world that the Queen has departed. Of course, English kings and queens have been living and dying for a thousand years. Charles is not the first monarch to wrestle with a a tough-to-follow legacy.
Courtiers, with timeworn tradition, sought to ease this transition and to stress what supporters see as the monarchy’s strongest feature – a sense of continuity and stability that elected politics cannot convey – with the simple death announcement attached to the gates of Buckingham Palace on Thursday evening.
“The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” the notice, bordered in black, read.
“The King and the Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”