England without the Queen?
In 70 years, the empire has watched a beloved female leader grow up — and grow
Dear friends and fellow countrymen,
The closest the United States ever came to having a female head-of-state came in 2016, when Hillary Clinton — a figure in the “kingdom” of Washington, DC for nearly 30 years at that point — won the Presidential popular election, but lost the electoral college. For four long years, America had a stocky, floppy-haired blonde man leading the country to certain global ostracism — with no oversight.
Currently, England has portly, floppy blonde-haired man in power — one who keeps surviving one Covid party scandal after another — yet somehow, Boris Johnson, while not able to be thrown out by Queen Elizabeth II, is chastened and tempered by this little grey-haired 95-year-old with a slight stoop. Whenever Boris appears in a broadsheet photograph flanked by a bottle of wine or during a “cake ambush”, the media usually follows with a picture of the stoic Queen standing alone, black mask touching the clear rims of her octagonal glasses at Prince Philip’s April 2021 funeral.
Love the monarchy, or claim devotion to Oliver Cromwell; think of QE II as an iron-fisted puppet-master or consider her a tea-sipping, Corgi-cuddling grandma now hip to the grandkids’ causes, those of us in the UK have to admit that she has provided solace in a topsy-turvy Tory whiplash. Although the dust-up with Prince Andrew has put some tarnish on the celebration, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which officially began on 6 February 2022, could be one of the coziest and most comforting celebrations in all of these uncertain times — in a Tudor-house, stone fireplace, jam-and-crumpet kind of way.
Mention the Queen, who has been diagnosed with Covid-19, at an English dinner party (gauge the room, first) and one will hear all sorts of retorts about the death of the monarchy, the merits of a republic, the class system and the money spent to keep these royals around. If there is a Baby-Boomer in the room, he or she might come to the Queen’s defense, citing her participation as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), where she trained as a truck driver and mechanic. But it’s important to note that through all the ups and downs of probably the craziest period in modern history, Queen Elizabeth has been there, watching — occasionally commenting — probably quietly harrumphing and trying to figure out how to assert herself.
Starting with her time during the “Great War” — which still looms large in the country’s lore 80 years after the fact — most families of wealth in Europe fled their countries, while the Windsors, who had changed their name from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to the estate they called home, remained. And among Europe no other leader who participated in that war and ascended to power afterward — even as a figurehead — is still alive to have witnessed, and moreover, adapted to the geopolitical, social and cultural changes over nearly a century.
These politicians and figureheads, of course, have a main role: to legislate and keep society in-check. But they also have a duty to lead by example and live in a way that honors their society’s values. Most leaders have two lives: the public and the “do as you’re told, not as I do.” Early on, the Queen struggled with living her duty to uphold the norm when she denied her sister, Princess Margaret, consent to marry Captain Peter Townsend, a member of King George’s staff who was divorced. The move will forever go down as a failure — as QE II had the chance to create universal change when it was called for — and instead capitulated to the aristocracy, the religious, the government and “tradition”. But having taken the criticism from the people, well into her 80s, she rolled with the times and gave Prince Charles consent to marry Camilla Parker Bowles and then Prince Harry to marry an American divorcee. Whose aged mother and grandmother does that? And publicly, too.
Queen Elizabeth II next faced the decline of the British empire, an empire built and designed by her ancestors. As countries all over Africa and the Middle East petitioned or rebelled for their independence, the Queen toured them and protected them under the Commonwealth until they became independent nations. There is always the argument that if never colonized in the first place — or left alone to determine their own fate — these countries would have found their way. But history is history. A survey in Eurasia Review suggests that the outcomes of decolonization in former British colonies, in terms of trade, centralization, and economic regulation were more stable, partially thanks to the Queen’s support. When she disagreed with the policy, she voiced it, as in the case when England entered an ultimately unsuccessful alliance to retake the Suez Canal from Gamal Abul Nasser in 1956.
Lastly, Queen Elizabeth has overseen a sense of duty and charity to England. As one of the richest people in the country, some might say it is her obligation to give back. It is. But that doesn’t mean any leader will actually participate in that duty — or attempt to instill that value in her children and the country at large. Many other monarchs spend all their free time in other countries, like France (Kind Mohamas VI of Morocco) or California (King Abdullah II of Jordan). The Queen, however, is not only head of Cancer Research UK, but also the British Olympics Federation, Girlguiding, the Police Athletic Association and hundreds of other educational, social and medical organizations across the Commonwealth.
The Royal Family receives money for the Sovereign Grant fund, which is 15 percent of the profits of the Crown Estate revenue — a sizable sum. They live very well. That said, as was demonstrated last week in Princess Anne’s rain-drenched support as patron of Scottish Rugby during the Six Nations tournament and her appearance, with Prince Charles, at the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for universities whose work benefits society, the royals — from the deceased Prince Philip to even Prince Harry — work hard at charity. In this time of have and have-nots, it’s easy to be cynical about charity boards and patronages — especially in the recent wake of Charles cash-for-honours probe for wealthy Saudis. But when you see actors like Idris Elba and David Oyelowo talking about how the Princes’ Trust changed their lives, it’s hard to remain so.
The Queen has many faults, as have been laid out in newspaper articles, books, plays, movies, television shows, pop art, music covers and other media around the world. All people in some kind of power have them — they are just human, after all — even Barack and Michelle Obama (civilian drone strikes, anyone?). American democracy, although proven many times over to not be the panacea for world harmony, also seems to reign as the best suited model for countries. However, Washington, has installed a Congressional and Presidential patronage system so vast and deep that even a position in the lower House of Congress will set a citizen on the path to lifetime wealth, in some cases, greater than the Queens’.
Rather, to serve through half of the 20th century and into the new millennium with the willingness to learn new technologies, lead a country as a woman, wife and mother, tack a different course when society changes, absorb the criticism and still show up in a big hat, ugly, comfortable flats and now with a walking stick she hates. I have grown to have a healthy respect for the Queen of England since my arrival a year ago, if for nothing else than her sense of duty and clearly, her passion for the job she inherited. I think most of the country feels this way. And as she ages and battles the process, we all worry about what will proceed her after she is gone.
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