The lines continue to grow – as hundreds of thousands of people are willing to stand in line for up to 10 hours to enter Westminster Hall, just to have a brief view of the Queen’s casket and pay their final respects.
Millions of British people – and those in countries around the globe – are shedding a tear for someone they feel they knew personally – someone who was quintessentially ordinary but unwittingly thrust into an extraordinary role.
It’s important to remember that this was not the life Queen Elizabeth thought she was born to lead. As the daughter of the ‘spare,’ she initially hoped to live the quiet life of a country woman.
The abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII, when she was 10 years old meant her father immediately became king, and as his eldest, she was then next in line of succession. And on his early death, she became queen at the age of 25.
As an American living in the UK, I’ve had many years to observe what monarchy means to my adopted country and also what made this ordinary woman so extraordinary.
Much has been made at this moment about the outdated colonialism the monarchy represents and the need for any final vestiges of the British Empire to recede.
With incredibly bad taste, a New York Times opinion piece used this moment of British public national public mourning to say, essentially, ‘good riddance’ to Queen Elizabeth, a figurehead, they said, complicit in Britain’s imperialist past.
Of course, it’s likely that one of King Charles III’s first priorities will be to preside over great change to the remaining few colonies as well as the Commonwealth (a voluntary collection of 56 independent nations) and acknowledge the most painful aspects of Britain’s colonialist past.
But it’s also important to recognize the role a king or queen actually plays in modern Britain.
Today a British monarch has no real political power. However, a prime minister has to answer to a monarch about his or her decisions, as though answering to the public itself, so at his best, the monarch acts as a kind of umpire.
Queen Elizabeth was known, as one commentator put it, for ‘marshmallow’ diplomacy – never overtly taking a position, but quietly asking the important or necessary questions of all the prime ministers over which she reigned.
As an outsider I’ve been able to witness what that role ultimately achieves.
On a personal level, the Queen’s great enduring strength was twofold – her extraordinary sense of duty, which she announced at the age of 21 and continued to follow for 70 years – but also her powerful moral compass, which was, with just a few exceptions, always pointed true north.
But I’ve also recognized that the role isn’t really personal. The papers are filled with recollections of those who met the Queen on her daily rounds, the comments that people remember she said to them – ordinary observations she may have said offhandedly that they have cherished for a lifetime.
But her words were so important because, in a sense, they weren’t made by an individual.
The king or queen represents something bigger than the person. In a sense, they embody Britain. They spend most of their days involved in charitable good works. The job of the role is to symbolize the very best version of their country, of unity and morality and tolerance, of something good and true to believe in.
A reminder of what we could be at our best – of hope and possibility.
It is that idealized view – the best of Britain – that brings people together and has brought the British people together in times like this. A few reassuring words from the Queen in a broadcast when Covid was raging, and the country came together to carry on.
I compare it to the anger, the cynicism and the extreme polarization in my own country right now. I have a vague recollection of having that kind of hope and pride whenI was a child and John F. Kennedy was president, a hope and pride completely extinguished when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were also murdered.
It may be that the last great US President who truly embodied that sense of possibility was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At a time when governments are bought and paid for by special interests, and corruption runs so deep among politics, industry and the media that it is difficult to know where to start to unravel it all, it’s important to have something or someone representing a better version of ourselves.
The Queen – that ordinary woman who wasn’t well educated, who was thrust onto the world stage for seven decades - understood that. ‘I have to be seen to be believed,’ she once said.
She made sure she was seen. But most important, she helped us to see the best possibility in ourselves.
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