It’s fitting that Queen Elizabeth II’s last official engagement was political in nature. She welcomed Liz Truss, the UK’s new prime minister, to Balmoral, formally giving her permission to form a new government. The ritual, which the queen had performed again and again, as King Charles will now do the next time there’s a new prime minister, is both ceremonial holdover and legal requirement—and as such served as a fitting reminder that while the queen might have been known around the world, she was also the bit of rubber cement holding the British constitution together.
As we cover Queen Elizabeth’s death in America, we talk about her as a part of pop culture, or as a foreign dignitary, or as something like the world’s grandmother. We talk about her as a “global icon,” the earliest charitable celebrity influencer. But that conception somehow leaves out her raison d’être. The British government exists in its current form because a long line of people with access to a great fortune let it happen in their name.
The English nation became a power-sharing agreement between a monarch and an independent Parliament nearly a millennium ago, but by the 19th-century reign of Queen Victoria, the monarch’s power had become largely symbolic. But “symbolic” does not mean nonexistent. The legal documents give the monarch certain powers, and monarchs are supposed know they could be deposed and expropriated if they act outside the bounds of tradition. Throughout her reign, the queen gave consent to laws that stripped her formal powers, in line with established practice.
Still, by accident of birth or divine providence, the queen, signing official documents as “Elizabeth R.,“ was the one who had to put her name on it, which left her in a difficult position. When an injustice happened in the British legal system, the lawyer responsible for that injustice would bare the initials QC, for “Queen’s Councilor.” To say nothing of, well, every other thing! (I would definitely not like to be in that position.)
To serve as such a figurehead is only a survivable position when you can stay studiously hands off and mostly silent about your feelings. The queen excelled at being elusive enough that the British people could view her as a moral exemplar. That a monarch could be all things to all people by rendering herself unknowable seems to be pretty widely accepted among my British interlocutors. It’s what the 19th-century constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot referred to as “the mystique of the monarchy,” in a text the queen almost certainly read as a teenager. The system as it currently exists requires someone who can play this role. Over the course of the year I spent working on our podcast Dynasty as the British political system imploded, I lost any belief that a new way of choosing a head of state is on the horizon.
I’d argue, however, that Queen Elizabeth became a global icon not for her remove but for her mundanity and her quirks. She was married to her high school sweetheart, she was witty and made jokes, she had an identifiable personal style. She owned 100 umbrellas to color-coordinate with her outfits. How on earth did someone so seemingly serious develop such an air of whimsy? (Her family’s great wealth and the underwriting of the British public of course made such flights of fancy possible.)
She wouldn’t have been such a draw for tourists had this side of her not become so familiar through pop culture and tour photography. That, in turn, strengthened the position of the monarchy in the UK. But it’s a double-edged sword. The more Britain becomes synonymous with the crown and its bearer, the more likely people are to use that image to attack the failings of British policy. So when we see Twitter complaints about the queen that raise fair points about the British Empire, we know both that the monarchy’s brand is strong, and Britain’s brand is divisive.
There’s something inevitable and even necessary about holding all these ideas in tension here in the US. So in mourning, criticizing and praising the queen all at once, we’re really marveling at her Goldilocks-like ability to hold this all together for so long. I really don’t know how she did it. God let the king figure out whatever is going to happen next.
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