This past Monday Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London was watched by more than 4 billion people worldwide. It was an historic occasion, the likes of which has never been seen in the United States and rarely anywhere else. There were the inevitable comparisons to the funerals of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill, but neither could match the stature of this one, nor did those of her royal predecessors, all of which took place before the rise of the global media that now connects the world in ways that were unthinkable before.
No funeral of a US president will ever rise to anything like the level of public mourning and grief that we witnessed for twelve days in Great Britain. And there are many reasons for that. American heads of state are elected leaders who, at best, now have the support of about half the electorate. There simply is no unifying figure here whose death would bring us together—not in politics, or sport, or popular culture. If you can think of one, I’m willing to listen. The sad truth is that when one former president dies, many people will gleefully dance in the streets; when another former president dies, people on the other side of the aisle will do the same. In both cases, it will be a sad and sorry spectacle for our country, but somewhat inevitable in the hyper-partisan world in which we live. In this country, politics is now a winner-take-all, no-holds-barred war to the death. It may be in the UK as well, but the Queen transcended that.
For this reason and others, I found myself over the last two weeks envious of our British friends who could and did unite around the Queen in the days after her death. I’m not so naïve as to believe that all Brits liked the Queen or support the monarch—they most certainly do not—but in that unmatched British way, those who don’t kept mostly quiet while the rest of the country paid tribute. What we witnessed instead was a dignified and historic national commemoration of a life that was unmatched in duty and service.
I asked an English friend to talk about this historic moment, to sum up what the Queen and these two weeks have meant to the British people, and what it was like to witness it all close up. What follows is an eloquent tribute.
“Uniquely, we have a constitutional monarchy where the Head of State is unelected and so is ‘above politics’ but nominally has a constitutional oversight of government business. In practice, of course, it is unlikely that the Monarch would over-ride the government, whereas an elected head of state probably would. I don’t need to give you examples of elected heads of state acting like dictators, fixing elections, and over-riding government, most of whom are already in their pockets. We have one or two people who would love to be elected our President, but do we want them? The problem is that if there was an election for head of state, one of them would get in and then probably go the way of others in other countries!
This was the Queen’s strength. She never made her political views public, never criticized the government, but undoubtedly made her views known by suggestion to the Prime Minister of the day in her weekly audiences. King Charles III, when he was the heir to the throne, often meddled in Government business and policy, giving often sensible but unwarranted advice, albeit in private, to Ministers. This will now have to stop, and it is to be hoped that he understands this.
The other strength our late Queen showed was in her character. Although surrounded by the trappings of royalty, away from the limelight, so one reads, she was down to earth, amusing, sharp as a tack, highly intelligent and a thoroughly nice person with a backbone of steel. She had the unfailing knack of getting on with all she met, and this can’t have been easy on State visits: Nicolae Ceausescu, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, to mention a few and then, of course, at the Commonwealth conferences there were people like Robert Mugabe!
I believe that her crowning show of tact and diplomacy was shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, a reformed senior member of the IRA. This act did more than anything else to find a solution to peace in Northern Ireland
The issue for the future is whether or not Charles can continue in that vein. He will never be his mother, but on the strength of the last few days, while he might not have all her qualities, he has shown an awareness, compassion, and sensibility which I don’t think many people thought he possessed. All this while grieving in public for a mother he adored.
The Queen’s funeral was watched by 28 million people in the UK, a quarter of a million filed past her coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall and the numbers who witnessed the coffin as it was carried on its various journeys were impossible to count. One only has to look at the TV coverage to see the numbers involved. This perhaps will be her greatest legacy, that in her death she united the country. Divisions of race, creed, and culture were ignored, and people came together, some in grief and some not, to remember her.
The King’s Consort, Camilla, summed it up. When the Queen came to the throne, she was a lone woman in a male-dominated club of world leaders. When she died, she was revered and respected by nearly all and was perhaps the most prominent statesman in the world, a fact borne out in that over 100 countries were represented at the funeral. This was ‘soft power’ working to the good of the UK, and the world.
The funeral itself was simple, but the pageantry and precision which surrounded it will never be forgotten. Could any other country have put on such a display?
We have lost a much-loved Monarch, the likes of whom is unlikely to be seen again in the country, or indeed, anywhere else in the world.”