The one good argument for hereditary monarchy is that a long reign sustains, through radical changes, a sense of continuity. Few figures in history can be said to have achieved this as effectively as Queen Elizabeth II. Her 70-year reign formed the bedrock beneath a series of transformations as the United Kingdom adjusted to its loss of empire and its diminished status as a world power.
It entered and then eventually left the European Union. It destroyed its own industrial base and became a service economy. It experienced the rise of increasingly separate identities within its component nations.
Through it all, she remained a steady and reassuring presence. With her death, we will discover how much, or how little, the notion of a “united kingdom” depended on the illusion of permanence she embodied so skilfully.
It could be said with some justice that Elizabeth’s great gift was for doing, and saying, almost nothing. The Beatles caught this truth in their affectionately mocking lines: “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl/ But she doesn’t have a lot to say.” Yet, as we learned during her historic visit in 2011 – the first by a reigning British monarch to independent Ireland – not saying much gives what is said, and even what is merely gestured, an unusual weight of meaning.
Her decision to bow towards the monument in the Garden of Remembrance to those who had fought against her ancestors, and her use of a few words of Irish at a State dinner in Dublin Castle may have been small things in themselves. But they carried a heavy freight of symbolism that, paradoxically, seemed to lift centuries of condescension and resentment off Anglo-Irish relations. That she managed all of this with dignity and seriousness gave even Irish republicans a sense of why her subjects might have regarded her, not just with devotion, but with affection.
This is also, however, why her death is so unpropitious. Dignity and seriousness have been in short supply in British politics in recent years. The squandering of so much of the goodwill she helped to create in Anglo-Irish relations is just one token of a wider crisis of governance in the UK. The accession of Liz Truss as the last prime minister of a monarch whose first was Winston Churchill carries its own weight of symbolism, none of it flattering to the state of her kingdom.
Britain’s last living official link to empire, to the second World War, to a former ideal of greatness, has now been broken. The figure who carried, just by virtue of her quiet endurance, the reassurance that everything in this increasingly troubled polity, was as it should be, has departed.
The very longevity that made Elizabeth such a potent symbol now has its downside: no one quite knows how the idea of the UK can carry on without her.