It is an old cliché, but it is often only when you have lost something, or someone, that you begin fully to appreciate what they meant to you. Time and again, we are hearing our compatriots express surprise at their sense of personal loss at the death of Queen Elizabeth. Not only among ardent monarchists, but among those of us who have never cared too much for the fripperies of royalty, the extravagance, the deference, and the endless gossip that inevitably surrounds it.
Only the most ardent republicans and Marxists can have avoided choking up on hearing the news we had all expected, yet never quite believed, finally announced on Thursday evening, the portrait of the Queen accompanied by the National Anthem, and most poignant of all, the scenes from her life, culminating in those final extraordinary pictures of her, as devoted as ever to her duty, and as radiant, at the age of 96.
Two qualities seem to stand out and have been remarked on by those who knew Queen Elizabeth best. The first was her humility. Despite the trappings of royalty, she was the most modest, unassuming, and deeply selfless of people. There was no trace whatever of grandeur or of superiority. All who have met her speak of her genuine curiosity in their lives, her desire to set them at their ease, to talk person-to-person.
The other quality was her Christian faith. Gyles Brandreth remarked yesterday that though we all saw her publicly attending Church on Sunday, few were aware that she had already attended privately the same morning. Every night, she kneeled and prayed. Her Christian faith was the rock on which her life of service was founded. Asked once which world leader had impressed her most, she replied without hesitation that it was Nelson Mandela. It was his ‘lack of rancour’.
We have heard many moving tributes, but perhaps two stand out. Former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Theresa May both read out beautifully judged tributes in the House of Commons. We know Boris Johnson ‘has a way with words’, but Theresa May, who balanced emotion with humour, was pitch perfect. Her comic timing was impeccable and brought the House down. No speech writers, no jargon, no pretence here. Just warmth and humanity. Why, we wonder, could we not have seen this Mrs May when she was prime minister.
But this is always the way. We see the best of our politicians, and perhaps also of ourselves, when we come together as a nation, only in times of crisis, in wartime, and in shared grief. However, this in-itself ought to remind us of something that is of profound importance: that we are still a nation with a distinctive history, a collective consciousness – and not just a collection of diverse individuals expressing their entrepreneurial spirit in the marketplace. We are, Liz Truss please note, much more than an international business park.
The extraordinary outpouring worldwide of affection for Queen Elizabeth reminds us of something else too – and that is the value of our constitutional monarchy. The tributes from political leaders around the world are testament both to the personal qualities of Queen Elizabeth and to the constitutional tradition that enabled her to play this role. They have gone far beyond those that might have been expected had she been merely a figurehead, a symbol, a decoration. She was, far and away, the greatest ambassador this country as ever known.
The tributes from the leaders of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, were deeply moving, and went far beyond what the usual proprieties would have required – which should remind us of something important about our history and our oldest friends. There has been little mention of the new Australian prime minister’s tribute (I am an honorary Australian, having citizenship through my mother, and so I listened). Anthony Albanese is no orator, and he spoke for 6 minutes in his broadcast to Australians. But it was an immensely powerful tribute to the Queen, and again, went far beyond what mere formalities would have required. She was no foreigner. She was our queen.
President Macron, too, spoke touchingly about the Queen, and about the entente cordiale – and perhaps this ought to remind us, and Liz Truss, of something important in our history too. Some readers of Le Figaro, the French conservative daily, were surprised that flags were flying at half mast in France. Wasn’t France a republic? Some of us who queued for hours at French customs during the summer will also have raised an eyebrow, but the 3-minute tribute, in English, backed by the flags of our two countries, was genuine enough. I watched French television on Friday evening and was struck by the outpouring of affection. There was much pride that the Queen had visited France more than any other country. Some of the Queen’s personal affection for France will have been inherited from her mother, who would surprise her dinner guests by calling on them to sing the Marseillaise. Well done, Macron. It is much appreciated.
Our new king spoke with great dignity when he addressed us yesterday and renewed his mother’s vows. Charles knows only too well the example he has been set, the act that he must follow. But times have moved on from 1952. The monarchy will need slimming down, and he understands that too. A woman in the crowd yesterday asked if she could give him a kiss. He said yes. No-one was offended. It was a poignant moment. We must all wish him well.
God bless the King.