It’s hard to know what to say or write that might add to or illuminate the millions of words that have poured out concerning the death on September 8, at the age of 96, of Queen Elizabeth.
I nearly wrote “our beloved Queen Elizabeth”, but in the interests of impartiality, I will leave that to the citizens who flocked to the gates of Buckingham Palace in London, who left mountains of flowers at the royal residences, who waited through the night for a glimpse of her coffin and who wept unashamedly in front of TV cameras.
A frequent comment has been that the majority of Britons will have known no other monarch, the queen having reigned for 70 years and seven months. I am actually one of the minority with clear memories of her predecessor on the throne, her father, King George VI.
In those pre-TV days, the monarchy seemed a remote and deeply serious institution, its members glimpsed occasionally in cinema newsreels and black-and-white newspaper photographs. The national anthem was played in theatres after the last film of the night and ushers made sure nobody slipped out before the closing words …. “God save the king.”
I recall being in a friend’s house one rainy afternoon, playing a board game with a bunch of other boys, when the national anthem came from the radio. The father of the house immediately called a halt to the game and had us all standing to attention until the anthem was over.
I would not say that was a common approach, any more than I would suggest the royal family enjoyed 100 per cent support from British people, then or now.
But the attitude was generally reverential, as evidenced by the shocked reaction to a critical article in the New Statesman magazine in 1955. Decrying what he described as the public’s “attitude of adulatory curiosity” toward the royal family, journalist Malcolm Muggeridge declared that “the whole show is utterly out of tune”.
Muggeridge later described himself as shocked at the virulence of the criticism he received.
Since then, with one or other member of the royal family now seen almost daily on television, criticism of the institutions has become more common and the tabloids scramble to headline anything with a whiff of scandal.
Prince (now King) Charles’s break-up with his first wife, Diana, and her death in a car crash rocked the family to its foundations. Allegations of criminal sexual actions by Prince Andrew, the queen’s second son, led to his being deprived of royal duties, and her grandson, Prince Harry, and his American wife, Megan, effectively resigned from the family and went to live in the United States.
Nevertheless, a recent survey showed that the majority of Britons want the royal system to remain. Researchers found that some 53 per cent support the monarchy against 26 per cent who want it gone. Backers of an elected head of state are mainly younger people.
Two other aspects of the monarchy tend to dilute criticism when people know the facts, namely that the king has almost no real power and that the institution is not particularly rich.
Certainly, King Charles will never have to go begging in the streets, but his wealth does not stand comparison to that of the captains of industry. Forbes magazine has estimated the monarchy’s net worth at approximately £325 million.
By comparison, the country’s richest man, the chemicals baron Jim Ratcliffe, is worth £14 billion. And he is only one of at least 17 British billionaires.
As for power, this is limited to the monarch giving his or her Royal Assent to all Acts of Parliament. However, the last time Assent was refused was 1707 and it is unthinkable that it could happen today.
What is incontestable is that the sadness demonstrated after the queen’s death was down to her personal popularity.
Over the years, Britons had come to acknowledge two particular aspects of her character – her undisguised belief in God and her sense of fun.
In her Christmas Day broadcast to the nation in 2014, Elizabeth declared, “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, whose birth we acknowledge today, is my inspiration and an anchor in my life.”
In a largely secular country, where references to a deity tend to make many people squirm, this was a bold declaration of Christian faith.
As for her lighter, human side, this could hardly be demonstrated in public, but was widely confirmed by those close to her. She had a particular talent for mimicry, with ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the former Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, among her top targets.
A former chef revealed that the queen’s best treat was dark chocolate (though she gave it up for Lent each year), that her preferred drink was gin and Dubonnet and that she loathed garlic. Queenly tastes, but they could also be yours or mine.