As the world’s leaders gathered in Glasgow this week for COP26, Queen Elizabeth II — most likely the dignitary they were keenest to glimpse — was not there to greet them. Europe’s last anointed and longest reigning monarch addressed the delegates in a recorded video instead.
This is but the latest of several intimations of royal mortality. The queen, 95 years old this year, long ago handed over arduous foreign tours to her son and heir to the throne, Prince Charles. Just as the Palace begins to transfer more duties around the royal “firm,” the U.K. must begin to think the unthinkable: of life without her.
Britain’s constitutional head of state canceled a planned two-day visit to Northern Ireland recently following an overnight stay in a London hospital, news of which Palace officials ill-advisedly withheld from the world’s media. The intention was to play down fears for her health and spare her privacy from intrusion. Instead, it set alarm bells ringing and accusations of a cover-up. To avoid a recurrence, aides will have to be more open with the press and public about the monarch’s health in old age.
The queen is now resting at her home in Windsor Castle, although two weeks ago she made an appearance at a reception for the government’s investment summit, welcoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Bill Gates among other guests.
But the shadow cast by her years lengthens. The queen was recently photographed with a cane and now conducts her weekly audiences with Johnson by telephone instead of face-to-face, avoiding London’s Buckingham Palace if she can. She has also given up riding, her favorite leisure pursuit. All quite normal for someone her age.
However, one day — later rather than sooner, we hope — bulletins from the Palace will declare something akin to what they said for her father George VI (“The King’s life is moving peacefully toward its close”). A telephone call will then be made on a secure line to the prime minister’s office bearing the message “London Bridge is down,” code for her passing. The Foreign Office’s Global Response Center will share the news with 15 governments outside the U.K. where the queen is still head of state and to the 36 other nations of the Commonwealth. Alerted within minutes by a Press Association newsflash, the vast majority of her people will learn of the death of the only monarch they have ever known.
Everything will change — from the head on bank notes to the sense of certainty and continuity Elizabeth II has so calmly embodied.
It a sign of how seriously doctors take the state of the queen’s health that she will not be attending the Remembrance Sunday memorial ceremony, an event which she considers the most significant in her calendar. Elizabeth II takes her coronation oath and royal duties with religious seriousness.
Unlike some other modern monarchs and even one recent Pope, she has refused to consider a formal retirement — the job she signed up to at the Coronation is for her, a job for life. The last long-reigning queen, Victoria, cloistered herself away for several years after her husband Albert’s death in 1861 and became unpopular for it. That is not her descendant’s way. Elizabeth’s intention is to remain in public view as long as she can.
“Long live the queen” was the proclamation made following her accession to the throne, but ever since her husband’s death her subjects are beginning to grasp that her life has a terminus.
Even the minority of her subjects who are staunch republicans and hate all the flummery associated with royalty will be moved by her departure. In opinion polls, an overwhelming majority think she is doing a great job. Through her dignity and emotional restraint, she has largely avoided the personal controversies that have dogged her children. Above all, she symbolizes continuity in Britain’s history.
For the queen is the last link to the age of empire, the Second World War and Winston Churchill’s finest hour.
Critics used to say she was wrong not to give way to her oldest son, the Prince of Wales, once a decent period had elapsed after the death of his first wife, Lady Diana, and his remarriage to Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. But perhaps by staying on, the queen has performed one last great national service.
Britain has just come through an agonizing period of political turbulence. The Brexit referendum in 2016 was a bitter affair that divided friends, families, classes and the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that make up the U.K. The aftermath was worse. Years of wrangling in the House of Commons led to a near constitutional breakdown and left the country in political stalemate.
In the eyes of the world and many of its own people, the U.K. was having a collective nervous breakdown. The one voice of calm in this febrile atmosphere was the queen. Had she left the scene at that point, the country would have convulsed. Now that the worst is over and political tempers have cooled, perhaps the country she reigned over can find more internal peace — if not agreement — and live with Charles, an heir who is dutiful and dedicated, but a more outspoken and divisive figure.
But first we must come to terms with the idea that the queen’s reign is steadily drawing to a close and prepare accordingly — even if royals have a way of wrong-footing expectations. After all, the queen mother, who died in 2002, lived to be 101.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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