UK and the world mourn the end of a life of service

UK and the world mourn the end of a life of service

UK and the world mourn the end of a life of service
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The death of Queen Elizabeth II of the UK and 14 other Commonwealth realms was not unexpected, but it was still a shock. Few of her subjects can remember a time without her. She reigned for 70 years, longer than any other British monarch. No living prime minister — from John Major, who took office in 1990, to Liz Truss, who did so only this week — has known anything in adulthood except her reign.

When Queen Victoria was dying, in 1901, a young Winston Churchill was on a lecture tour in Winnepeg, in frozen central Canada. Far from the heart of England, the effect of the queen’s death, when announced, was immediate and immense. Churchill wrote that the Canadians felt that they had loved her, and they mourned her loss. When Victoria died, an era died with her — and everyone knew that this was true as it was happening.

The same must be said of Elizabeth, whose reign began with Churchill as prime minister and spanned a period of immense change. At 96, ever dutiful, her last official act was to appoint her 15th prime minister, Liz Truss, on Tuesday. It fell to Truss to announce the queen’s death to the nation and the world.

The queen was the last ruler to have known Churchill and Eisenhower. She met a host of other monarchs. She toured the Middle East and Asia extensively — sometimes as queen of countries that would later abolish their monarchies, at other times as a visitor and friend. When Elizabeth hosted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in 2018, he was only the youngest and latest of the royal family she had known well.

Her death marks the end of an era that began in the momentous mid-20th century, in which many of the conventions of international affairs and modern government were formed. Her reign, when it began in 1952, was recognized as a second Elizabethan age.

The Second World War, in which Elizabeth served, instilled in her a sense of duty — one to which she referred in a speech to mark her 21st birthday: “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.”

The queen was head of state, but she was not in government. Constitutionally bound, she did not exercise executive power. But throughout her reign, she was in close contact with her prime ministers. She received state papers from her accession to the throne at the age of 25, and read them with close attention. She met her prime ministers every week until the COVID pandemic interrupted the practice in 2020. According to the constitutional historian Peter Hennessey, the prime ministers of the last century and this one each grew to depend upon her counsel.

In Walter Bagehot’s seminal 1867 work “The English Constitution,” the author summarized the monarch’s political role as including the rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. But this does not do justice to the dutiful way Elizabeth carried out her role.

The monarchy is a lonely business. It is isolating, if allowed to be. But Elizabeth held true to the tradition of the “public service monarchy.” It meant touring the country and the world, meeting people with power and those without it, always being prepared to engage with anyone, to talk with animation, or to know when not to talk.

Bagehot called the monarchy a “magic” part of the British constitution, and the queen’s dignity and poise in carrying out her duties maintained that magic — deep into an age where politicians and rulers in the Western world are supposed to carry themselves no differently from the ordinary people they meet.

The queen was deeply loved by many in the countries she ruled, and she was respected by leaders and citizens across the world. This was not merely a product of her title and the length of time she wore the crown. Rather, it was the result of seven decades’ dutiful work — to be visible and available, to be of help to leaders but apart from politics. As she herself once observed, with a typical flash of humor: “I must be seen to be believed.”

When the COVID pandemic struck the world, and isolated so many across the planet in their homes, the queen made a rare broadcast on a specific issue. When she — a nonagenarian great-grandmother — spoke of being apart from those she loved, she spoke to and for so many.

And when she, a living link to the past, said: “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. ... And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any,” she summoned the spirit of another age as no one else could.

That broadcast was watched by over a billion around the world. She spoke to the sense of duty in everyone, as only she could have done.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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