The United Kingdom’s longest serving monarch finally passed away last week at the age of 96, completing seventy years on the throne. Even recent gains by Ukraine recapturing territory often seems below the fold to the story of the queen’s death and her son’s ascension.
Even though I’m 65, she was the only English monarch I lived under. So I’m sure in the U.K. her death was bound to be huge news. While the United States broke away from Great Britain largely because of King George III, her death has somehow caused our flags to be lowered to half-mast. I doubt if the Queen Máxima of the Netherlands died we’d do the same. I doubt that one in 100 Americans even know the Netherlands has a queen, and fewer would know her name. I had to Google it.
If you’ve watched the Netflix series The Crown, you will learn Queen Elizabeth was quite a bit more interesting than she appeared in public. Of course, its producers got to amp-up her story, but it makes for compelling television. Aside from her long reign, she was groundbreaking in one major way: she was the first monarch of note in post-colonial Great Britain. Not that G.B. has completely given up empire, but its few affiliated states keep drifting away. Barbados was the latest country to ditch the British Commonwealth. I happened to visit it on a cruise ship last December just weeks after the event. Many of the remaining members are loosely affiliated at best and may put her image on their money.
The whole idea of monarchy seems incredibly dated. In fact, the king or queen of Great Britain doesn’t do a whole lot. As best I can tell, their primary purpose is to keep the feeling of national identity from flagging and in times of national crisis try to raise the morale of its citizens. Prime ministers come and go, but a sovereign provides a feeling of continuity and national purpose. In that sense, maybe America needs some sort of similarly disempowered figurehead, perhaps to scold either party when they get too much out of line.
Not to put too fine a point on it though, but one of the primary purposes of its sovereign is to assert, “This is a white country.” It’s true Prince Harry took Megan for his wife, and she’s the first known British royal of color. But Harry’s kind of had it with the monarchy, and has largely disavowed it. He and Megan live in Canada and seem happier away from the British Isles.
Being a royal though sounds like a pretty good life, if you don’t mind dodging the paparazzi. You’ll never have to worry about being homeless or poor. You might wish that you could do something more meaningful than open shopping centers or doting on your corgis. You might tire of trying to flatter or tolerate the numerous boors who come to kiss your hand.
The hardest part of the Queen’s job, at least according to The Crown, is simply to shut up. It’s not your place to have opinions on political matters, but to open parliament with ceremony and to accept the many new prime ministers who will come calling. The better PMs would meet periodically with the sovereign to keep them abreast on important matters. I suspect though that reading The Times of London or The Guardian would more than suffice.
Early in my blogging career, I opined on Prince (now King) Charles’s decision to marry a divorcee, Camilla Bowles. It sure sounded like the Queen didn’t like Camilla, but I saluted Charles for finally marring the woman he really loved. Anyhow, the Queen had something of a change of heart. Camilla will become a Queen Consort, which means she is functionally a queen, but devoid of any political powers. The exception is that if Charles died with a minor in the line of succession. Then she could rule as a regent until he was of age. But that’s not going to happen. Prince William is 40. I guess Camilla grew on Elizabeth, and the quarter century since Princess Diana’s death made a lot of her grudge moot.
Elizabeth endeared herself to her “subjects”, mainly by being one of them. She was a surprise monarch, so her childhood was more like one of her subject’s than one of royalty. It took a number of surprise changes for her to become queen, including the abdication of Edward VIII. This made the Queen a bit more grounded than most monarchs and more relatable. While the work of monarch wasn’t too hard, it was persistent and could be demanding. To her credit, she hung in there and did her duty, such as it was, and it seemed to resonate with her subjects.
And what of King Charles III? No prince has had to wait longer to become king, which makes him Great Britain’s oldest king ever. The good news is he is unlikely to suffer the fate of King Charles I (their only beheaded king) or Charles II (who belatedly reestablished the monarchy, but did a bad job of it, so bad that soon sovereigns became figureheads). He’s unlikely to endear himself the way his mother did, and his “reign” will certainly be shorter. At age 73, he’ll be lucky to have two decades as king. I suspect most Britons are waiting around for King William V, assuming they don’t use the time between then to ditch the monarchy altogether.
While Elizabeth reigned over a much smaller empire, she deserves some hisses for maintaining what was left of it. Beyond the pomp and circumstance of royalty, England and then Great Britain’s colonial past is one of marked shame, slavery, subjugation and often open looting. I’ve been to the British Museum in London, and it’s an amazing storehouse of art, relics and treasure. But almost all of it was looted and Briton’s don’t seem to be in a hurry to return the booty. At best, it’s being slow walked.
If you have to be a monarch though, Elizabeth’s example of how to do it right will be hard to top. It’s likely her reign will forever be its longest.