Elizabeth II was a bridge between the past and the future. She wasn’t Churchill’s Queen, or Margaret Thatcher’s Queen, or Tony Blair’s Queen, though she presided over them all. She was a Queen for all her people and all Great Britain, working hand in hand with political legends without being a political activist. Her heir, King Charles, hasn’t shown he has what it takes so far…
Let me start by saying I had no understanding or appreciation for the British Monarchy for most of my adult life. As an American, growing up in a world without hereditary rulers or titles of any sort, the whole thing seemed like something from the middle ages transplanted into the modern world without any meaning or purpose, an anachronism if ever there was one. It was strange to me that people around the world cared so deeply and followed so closely the actions of a family simply because of their birth and choice in marriage. Perhaps Frank Drebin of Police Squad fame said it best in The Naked Gun: No matter how silly the idea of having a queen might be to us, as Americans we must be gracious. Of course, few are immune to the power of personality pushed by broad swaths of the media, and some knowledge of the affairs of the royal family was inescapable even in high school and college. Everyone knew who Princess Diana was, everyone was aware of her divorce from Prince, now King, Charles, and most remember precisely where they were when the Princess met her untimely end on August 31, 1997. I was at a house party at Rutgers University. It was on the eve of our senior year in college, and even half in the bag as it were, news swept across the gathered, mainly drunken co-eds like a late summer thunderstorm. I can’t say I was devastated or shocked into a silence like learning about 9-11 a few years later or anything that dramatic, but some were and for whatever reason, it was self-evidently a moment we knew we’d all remember.
In the intervening years, I didn’t think or care about it much, sticking to the opinion of the fictional Mr. Drebin and believing the whole thing was rather silly, never stopping to consider I didn’t really know all that much about it in the first place. Elizabeth II seemed like an old woman with a funny crown, dowdy in fancy clothes, for my entire life. I had no idea who she was, where she came from, or anything she’d done. There was no connection there that I could see, and it wasn’t until I watched The Crown on Netflix that I began to develop any appreciation or understanding. The Crown is, of course, a fictionalized account of her life and times, but it seems to me it presents the fundamental bargain British royalty, particularly the Queen and her immediate family, make between themselves and the country, as well as the personal sacrifices required to maintain that bargain. The proper British royal exchanges their personhood and all that comes with it – freedom of will, action, association, and speech – in exchange for wealth, privilege, prestige, and fame. Upon donning the crown or taking on a title of Prince or Princess, a person ceases to be their own. They are transformed into a symbol of power shared across the entire United Kingdom, but they must give up all private opinions, tastes, and preferences in order to do so. Putting this another way, a monarch does not have personal opinions, or at least not those that are expressed in public. Telling people what to think, who to like, or what policy to support is not their role.
The Crown makes this apparent from the very first episode, when Elizabeth doesn’t even want to be queen in the first place, preferring her more sociable and outward minded sister, Princess Margaret. The choice is not hers to make, however. She is the eldest and must bear the burden. This is only the first of literally thousands of choices she is denied, from that of her own Private Secretary, the person most intimately familiar with her affairs, to the Prime Minister. The Private Secretary in particular is most striking in the early days of her reign. As Princess, she had her own secretary, Martin Charteris, whom she enjoyed a close relationship with, and would’ve preferred to see him continue in the role, but this would not do for a monarch. The same way hereditary titles are passed down from generation to generation via bizantine and sometimes obscure rules, so is the position of Private Secretary to the Queen. The “anointed” Private Secretary at the time was Michael Aldeane, who took over in 1953 after Sir Tommy Lascelles stepped down. The newly minted monarch knew little of Mr. Aldean, who was dull and and boring compared to the more dashing, ex-military man Mr. Charteris. She recommended that Mr. Charteris be promoted to the role above Mr. Aldeane, until the former secretary, Mr. Lascelle stepped in, informing her there is a proper order to things and “any departure from the rules is not to be encouraged.” It would be another twenty years before Mr. Charteris had worked his way through the ranks and was considered suitable for the role. He served for almost 25 years, and the Queen gifted him a silver tray on his retirement, engraved “Martin, thank you for a lifetime.”
In an earlier age, we might refer to this as “duty,” but that is not a strong enough word to describe what it means in the 20th and 21st centuries when wealth, power, and notoriety seem the primary motivators of celebrity. Over her 70 years as Queen of England, Elizabeth II presided over every Prime Minister from Winston Churchill to the newly elected Liz Truss. In between, she met weekly with Anthony Eden, Harold Mcmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson, fifteen in all. These were distinct individuals. The legendary statesmen and hero of World War II, Churchill. The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. The brash and bold Tony Blair. The frumpy, rough-edged, messy-haired Brexit-supporter, Boris Johnson. These leaders were sourced from a wide variety of political parties and perspectives, representing everything from the right wing to an almost socialist left. Clearly, Queen Elizabeth II must’ve had a personal opinion on each one both as an individual and as a leader. She likely supported or rejected any of thousands of policies proposed over seven decades, but never said so much as a single word one way or the other, about any and all of it. Likewise, she presided over the special relationship with the United States across fourteen Presidents, starting with Harry Truman. The list includes Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Almost all of these men met with her personally at a state visit in England or the United States. President Biden met with her just this past June. One can imagine the conversations she must’ve had, the relationships and opinions formed with some of these near mythical figures, and yet she personally has never said a word. Treating them all the same as her duty demanded.
This doesn’t mean the Queen had no personal opinions or preferences. She was known as a lover of the outdoors and an avid rider of horses, something that was said privately to have given her a special bond with President Reagan, who she described as “the most charming” to a biographer. Nor does it mean the Queen kept the monarchy frozen in stasis. Her and her husband, the late Prince Philip both understood that the world was changing and the monarchy would need to adapt to the media age. Perhaps nothing makes this more clear than a mining disaster in the Welsh town of Abefan on October 21, 1966 that killed 144 people, 116 of whom were students at an elementary school that was destroyed by a “glistening black avalanche” smothering everything as it rolled down from the tip of a mine above. “I thought I was seeing things,” crane driver Gwyn Brown told investigators in the aftermath. “Then it rose up pretty fast, at a tremendous speed…It sort of came up out of the depression and turned itself into a wave—that is the only way I can describe it—down toward the mountain.” The sludge sweeping upon the unsuspecting town was said to be a tsunami 30 feet tall, moving at up to 80 miles per hour. It tore right through the walls of Pantglas Junior School, trapping and killing students and teachers in four classrooms. In the aftermath, “Everything was so quiet,” explained Cyril Vaughan, a teacher at the nearby senior school. “[It was] as if nature had realized that a tremendous mistake had been made and nature was speechless.” England as a whole was stunned, grieving the loss, especially as it seemed the accident was avoidable. As The Crown tells it, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, believed Queen Elizabeth should visit the town, but the Queen was concerned her presence would be a distraction, that comforting people was simply a “show” and the “Crown doesn’t do that.” It would take eight days for the Queen to relent and make a visit, a delay she called her “biggest regret” years later. Royal Biographer Robert Lacey described her time in Abefan as a shift in the stoicism of the monarchy, noting that her “gaunt features, etched with grief, were the more moving for being so clearly genuine.” Jen Chaney, a critic for Vulture, believes the season 3 episode of The Crown dramatizing these events offered “one of multiple hints that modern times are beginning to demand more transparency and outward empathy from the royal family.”
Empathy in the era of mass communication is one thing. Political activism is another. One of the most amazing things about Queen Elizabeth II is that we know precious little about her political views despite seven decades in the harshest of public spotlights. She was not Thatcher’s Queen or Blair’s Queen or even Churchill’s Queen. She was the Queen, and that meant she was a representation of all of the United Kingdom’s varied political views, parties, and factions. A symbol for everyone, from the political poles and the broad middle, from the wealthiest to the poorest. It was not for her to recommend anyone over any other. Sadly, King Charles III, her son and successor, has not shown nearly the same reticence at least as Prince. Over the past two decades or so, Charles has fashioned a public persona as an outright environmental activist, proclaiming climate change an existential threat to the planet and demanding radical solutions with specific policy implications. In September 2020, he called for a “Marshall-like plan for nature, people, and the planet,” suggesting that massive growth in government and government power was required, an altogether left-leaning, liberal position. Last November, he addressed a climate gathering, the COP26, and went even further because time had “quite literally run out” to address the catastrophe. Like many other climate activists, he used the coronavirus pandemic to make this case, claiming it has “shown us just how devastating a global, cross border threat can be.” “Climate change and biodiversity loss are no different,” the future King proclaimed. “In fact, they pose an even greater existential threat to the extent that we have to put ourselves on what might be called a war-like footing.” He called for a specific tax on carbon, “Putting a value on carbon, thus making carbon capture solutions more economical, is therefore absolutely critical,” he said, and referenced some vague form of global government. “As we tackle this crisis, our efforts cannot be a series of independent initiatives running in parallel…The scale and scope of the threat we face call for a global systems level solution based on radically transforming our current fossil fuel based economy to one that is genuinely renewable and sustainable.” He concluded by asking for huge sums of money for “countries to come together to create the environment that enables every sector of industry to take the action required. We know this will take trillions, not billions of dollars.”
This is not the sort of speech Queen Elizabeth II would have made for what should be obvious reasons: Broad swaths of the very countries he is calling upon, including England, disagree with his assessment and recommended solutions. A monarch that pushes policies out of step with large percentages of their subjects cannot continue for long, especially when those policies will undoubtedly have negative impacts on many of those same people. This is not representation for all of England: It’s representation for the left-leaning portion, not merely in the activism but in the specific calls for more government power, spending, and multinationalism. This sort of thing is near toxic to the “Brexit” wing of Great Britain. If Charles continues down this path, the monarchy itself will be at risk. Fortunately, there is some indication that he understands the role of the King is different. “My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities,” Charles said in his first speech after ascending the throne. “It will no longer be possible to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I cared so deeply, but I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.” Environmental activists will no doubt be disappointed, but this is nothing short of what is required.
Charles is already the oldest monarch to take the throne in British history. He cannot afford to be the most divisive, and ultimately his age and the era make it unlikely he has any chance of leaving a legacy anything close to his beloved mother’s. He should do his best to remain keenly aware of this and act accordingly for both the monarchy’s sake and all of Great Britain. Prudence, caution, and an adherence to tradition are required for even a king in his position. One of the things that struck me most watching The Crown was how Elizabeth II was a living embodiment of history. She worked directly with figures such as Winston Churchill that have acquired near legendary status. Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy: These aren’t merely politicians in the modern sense of the word. They are a part of the history of the world, making it difficult to believe that their time overlapped with anything in our own. Reading about Churchill is like learning about Abraham Lincoln. The idea that someone who only recently passed away knew him personally almost boggles the mind. Elizabeth II was a bridge between the past and the future, one that can never be replaced. She was so beloved, unique, and important in this regard that it remains an open question whether the monarchy can survive without her. Either way, we will not see her like again.