An elegy for the queen of an American in London


On my very first day in London 25 years ago, the tragic news broke that Princess Diana had died in a car accident in Paris. The huge public outpouring that followed showed how the monarchy is so often at the center of the conversation about what it means to be British.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II is neither totally unexpected nor tragic. But a quarter of a century later, I am more sensitive to its meaning in my adopted country. Like so many major events she has been involved in for seven decades on the throne, her succession has been meticulously planned and will no doubt be perfectly executed. And yet, as anyone who has lost a family member knows, no one is ever truly prepared.

This applies on a large scale here. From the moment the Prime Minister is told “London Bridge is down”, a whole series of plans are activated. The country will not talk about anything else in the days to come. But neither the royal family nor the country know what it will be like to have a different monarch at the helm, or how his passing will trigger a wider period of change.

You cannot visit Britain without realizing that you are in a kingdom. Stamps and paper money bear the portrait of the Queen. Countless pubs are called the Queen’s Head or the Queen’s Arms; there is the Royal Opera House, the Royal Borough of Kensington and so many other “royal” places. Some 8,000 streets are named after Queen, King, Royal, Jubilee or a synonym. A royal warrant bestows a special cache on favored businesses and charities.

Even so, my younger self couldn’t understand how a person with all that inherited wealth could come to embody a nation’s view of themselves. For an American, all of this stands strangely apart from modern notions of democracy. The hereditary principle has always been anathema to the American sense of meritocracy (although the irony now is that so much wealth and opportunity in the United States is indeed inherited). So was the idea of ​​a head of state who is also a head of the church.

And yet, as this summer’s Jubilee celebrations unfolded, there I was, with a lump in my throat, filming video from my television as the Queen stepped onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace in this appearance perfectly choreographed with her closest family members in a neat row. I sent the clip by WhatsApp to my family in the United States.

“Queen looks thrilled. Crowd really happy to be there,” my octogenarian mother wrote. “Hard for me as an American to understand.”

I understand. Americans have different reactions to the monarchy. It is easy to be enchanted and entertained; more difficult to feel true attachment. They can be equally enveloped in the pomp of royal weddings or escape in the drama of royal meltdowns and scandals, of course. One study even found that more Americans were excited about the Jubilee than Britons.

But they may also find the commotion disconcerting or even offensive. “Why should we celebrate the fact that one person ruled continuously for 70 years? And is a constitutional monarchy really compatible with our democratic ideals? wrote Steven Porter in USA Today about the Jubilee turmoil.

Becoming British has meant working towards an understanding of things that come automatically to native-born people. The other lesson I learned from my early days in the UK is that while the Queen’s role is largely ceremonial, there is no sharp line between palace and politics. The Queen may stay out of politics, but as former US Ambassador to Britain Raymond Seitz, a keen observer of Britain, wrote, “when that little arch of reserve stands on the royal front , a silent shiver runs through Whitehall”. (Will Charles’ rather bushy forehead get the same notice, I wonder.)

Following Diana’s death, a young and new prime minister made a statement that captured the public mood perfectly, crowning her “the people’s princess”. Tony Blair’s popularity reached 93%, considered the record for a Democratic politician. The Queen, according to many accounts following her lead, also opened up, showing a monarchy that could adapt to changing times.

The great British essayist Walter Bagehot warned against letting light into this rich tapestry of convention and ceremony. The trick of the monarchy is its mystique; its estrangement from ordinary people serves to bring the elected government closer to them. The role of the monarch, he said, could be loosely defined as “to warn, to encourage, to be consulted”. This kind of nuance, like the rule of law in the absence of a written constitution, can be uncomfortable for non-Britons.

What makes this succession so poignant and its effect so unpredictable is the combination of the former queen’s personal stamp and the historic moment in which Britain finds itself. She may have inherited a crown, but the worldwide admiration was deserved. This stems from her hard service (even blessing a new Prime Minister 48 hours earlier) but also from the values ​​she lived – decency, duty, spiritual devotion, love of nature, loyalty to family and country.

It is an impossible act for Charles, his heir and now king, to follow. He is happily remarried to Camilla, the woman who was at the heart of his marriage breakdown with Diana. Those wounds at least have healed, but his family is still reeling from the very public falling out of his two sons, William and Harry, and the shame of his brother Andrew’s association with Jeffrey Epstein. With the queen gone, it will be up to Charles to create a sense of stability and continuity, but simply stopping the sense of decay would be a start. The exam will be intense.

The Queen’s death represents a moment of vulnerability but also an opportunity. Although support for the monarchy is strong overall in Britain, with around 62% of Britons in favour, it is weakest among young people; only a third of 18-24 year olds see the benefit. “If the monarchy is to thrive, it must continue to tell a story that engages people,” historian Alex von Tunzelmann wrote in April. “That doesn’t mean it has to modernize. Its appeal may lie in reiterating that sense of tradition, benevolence and duty that the Queen has channeled so well. »

Royal succession will also be a test, perhaps in some ways defining, of another new prime minister, Liz Truss, whose treatment of the response will be broadcast around the world. Days of memories and outpourings will overshadow discussions of the country’s energy crisis, the struggling national health service, the war in Ukraine, and just about every other news story. But only temporarily. The Queen leaves the world at a time when Britain’s fourth Conservative government is redefining its role in the world after Brexit, trying to maintain a frayed union and facing the biggest economic crisis since the financial crisis. The pound, as if wondering, is at its lowest level since 1985.

Some 2.5 billion people around the world watched Diana’s funeral. I suspect many more will follow this changing of the guard, whether they fully understand its implications or, like me after all these years later, are still piecing it together.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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