At home and on the world stage, the Queen served with grace and unfailing duty. Now her son must rise to the challenge
As heir to the British throne, Princess Elizabeth addressed the Commonwealth in a radio broadcast on her 21st birthday. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be short or long shall be devoted to your service.” In so doing, she accepted her destiny as a future monarch: a lifetime of duty and an identity for evermore indistinguishable from head of state.
It is a heavy burden for any one individual to carry. But it is one Queen Elizabeth II bore with grace, duty and humor over her 70-year reign. She was not perfect; she got some things wrong. But in the Queen, Britain benefited from a monarch who understood her role and its limits in a democracy and who for decades served her people unfailingly and without complaint. Her death marks a profound moment of transition for the UK; as the country celebrates her life and grieves her loss, her son Charles assumes the role of King at a time of great economic, international, political and constitutional uncertainty. How Charles III approaches his reign will undoubtedly shape the future of the UK as a constitutional monarchy.
Point of stability
The anachronism at the heart of a democratic monarchy is that a role of constitutional significance is a matter purely of birthright, not a principle the Observer supports. But the Queen has been the most effective and longest-reigning monarch in modern history. She has been an extraordinary public servant, a point of stability during times of huge social and economic flux and a source of national affection and pride that is quite separate from the country’s political leadership. There were many points during her reign where critics predicted the monarchy’s demise. But she has steered the institution through numerous national and family crises.
Most significantly, she appreciated the importance of neutrality in her position. Little is known about her personal political beliefs. On rare occasions her role became historically important, such as her 2011 visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a British monarch in more than 100 years. But the real power and significance of her role derived from elsewhere.
During times of national strife, she has provided comfort and reassurance. She set the tone with her first public address in 1940, at the age of 14, to the children of the Commonwealth, many evacuated from their families during the Second World War: “In the end, all will be well,” she told them. Towards the end of her reign, she addressed the nation during the Covid-19 pandemic, comparing the painful separation from loved ones to wartime evacuation and telling Britons “we will meet again”.
Surprisingly, given quite how abnormal a life she has had to lead, she has also helped to embody a sense of national identity. Britain in 2022 would have been unrecognizable to the Britain of 1952 when she acceded to the throne: multiracial, far more tolerant of difference and starting to confront the fact that our complex and mixed history cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional story of a plucky nation seeing off its enemies.
That might have been uncomfortable for an institution so steeped in tradition, conservatism and privilege, as well as duty. But the Queen has always seemed to understand this changing Britain, for example using a Christmas address almost 20 years ago to appeal for greater religious and cultural tolerance, and to remind the country “discrimination still exists”.
Advertisement Her wicked sense of humor brought levity to big national moments. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony featured a skit in which she accompanied Daniel Craig as James Bond from the palace to the Olympic Stadium; her own idea, which she had kept secret from the rest of her family. This year, her platinum jubilee celebrations included her playing herself in a short video with a CGI version of Paddington Bear, bonding over a shared love of marmalade sandwiches.
The international tributes and heartfelt expressions of sympathy from politicians and public figures from across the world speak to just how global a presence the Queen commanded and the affection within which she was held internationally. There is perhaps no other British figure in recent history who has commanded such widespread respect. She has been an important source of soft power for her prime ministers, hosting state visits, undertaking visits and building bridges; her tenure means she met more world leaders than anyone else in the world. Culturally, the monarchy is inseparable from Britain’s global image.
She did make mistakes over the course of her reign. There were occasions when her distaste for public shows of emotion led her to misjudge what the nation needed, most notably, the five-day silence she kept after Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car accident in Paris in 1997. But it is perhaps remarkable that there were not more missteps over the seven decades in a role where success is so often judged by a lack of criticism, rather than positive acclaim.
One of the reasons that many Britons were able to identify with their monarch was that among the joyous occasions – the jubilee celebrations, the weddings, the births – there were also moments of personal family strife: divorces, scandals and feuds. By far the most serious moment, however, has been justified scrutiny over how the Palace handled the consequences of Prince Andrew’s association with the convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the delay in stripping him of his military titles and royal affiliations.
Now the crown passes to Charles, who this weekend was formally proclaimed King. On Friday, in his first address to the nation as monarch, he paid a touching tribute to his mother. There is a good deal of public warmth towards him and many Britons are willing him to succeed. He gave some important hints about how he will approach his new role, acknowledging that it will require him to step back from the charities and issues on which he has worked as the Prince of Wales. This is an important reflection of concerns that, unlike his mother, he has been seen to overstep the bounds of royal neutrality in championing certain causes, some of which, such his climate activism, this paper is very sympathetic too, others of which, such as his advocacy of homeopathy, have raised questions about his judgment. Investigations have also revealed the extent of his lobbying of politicians and officials during his tenure as Prince of Wales. A big test for him in the coming years will be whether he is able to step back from being this political.
Advertisement The other challenge facing him is the modernization of the monarchy. He has long been clear as heir to the throne that he views slimming down the royal family to a leaner institution, with fewer minor royals supported by the British taxpayer, as key to its survival. His son, Prince Harry, in many ways acted as a catalyst for this even before his reign started with the decision he and his wife made to step back from their duties as senior royals and move to the United States.
In our social media age, where there are increasingly blurred lines between leadership and celebrity, public and private, it will only become more challenging for royals to walk the fine line between being an institution that citizens can identify with and an institution that they know too much about. There have been some jarring moments as the Queen’s children and grandchildren have assumed more of her duties in the last couple of years, which serve to underline how deftly the Queen and her advisers handled her own tours and visits.
These longer-term questions about the future of monarchy will no doubt be debated extensively in the years to come. But King Charles III assumes his role as head of state at a time when the UK faces existential challenges on a scale not seen during his lifetime, just days after a new premier was appointed by his mother. The Ukraine crisis has triggered an energy shock that will create severe financial hardship for many families and businesses.
Britain is struggling to understand its place in the modern world at a time of great global instability and after the hugely consequential decision to leave the European Union. The very integrity of the United Kingdom remains in question as the campaign for Scottish independence continues to press for another referendum.
It is a difficult time for Britons to lose a Queen who was loved and cherished by people of all generations and it is a difficult time for her eldest son to assume her mantle. It is only right to wish him strength, courage and good fortune for the years of public duty that lie ahead.