The U.S. has been my home for two decades. When people twig my accent and ask where I’m from, a question about the United Kingdom’s royal family is usually not far behind.
I always struggle to answer.
Today my homeland buries its queen, the longest-serving monarch in a virtually unbroken line of more than 900 years of history. Queen Elizabeth II’s death feels like the end of an era, a severing of the nation’s last link to a past of empire and colonialism. I will profess a grudging admiration for a woman who honored her vow to serve the nation until her death. But it doesn’t erase my feelings that it’s an institution that belongs in the past.
I first began to question the order of British society in my early teens. One of five kids raised by a single mum in council housing, we depended on welfare to survive. Home was less than 2 miles from Buckingham Palace, where a life of exalted position, wealth and power arrived not through merit or by the will of British voters, but by accident of birth.
It didn’t help that, while English, my roots are in Ireland. My childhood coincided with “the troubles,” when those from Ireland were treated with suspicion. The queen was the figurehead of a country that had suppressed and colonized Ireland for 700 years. She was not everybody’s queen.
The monarchy seems even more of an anachronism in 2022, a quaint relic of a feudal past. Like most Western democracies, Britain has reformed institutions and systems to make the country more diverse, inclusive and equitable. The monarchy stands outside of that, a vestige of a country last conquered in 1066 and untouched by revolution since.
You can’t live in the U.K. and avoid the royal family. The queen’s image is on coins, bank notes and stamps. Every few years seems to bring a royal birth, a wedding, a contentious divorce or a death.
In an age when fame is vaunted more than ever, they are the ultimate celebrities, a living, breathing soap opera played out on the front pages of the U.K.’s tabloids and in media around the world.
It doesn’t surprise me that Americans, while clearly fascinated by the royal family, have no desire for one of their own. This is a country where class and privilege matter less than income and achievement, where even a lowly position like serving on the mosquito control board is contested at the ballot.
If Elizabeth’s long reign has proved anything, it’s the value of a figurehead who is beyond the tumult of partisan politics, a steadying hand on the nation’s steering wheel.
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In the United States, the president is effectively prime minister and head of state. In this increasingly partisan era, that means a leader opposed, and often detested, by roughly half the country.
That can matter in a time of crisis. President George W. Bush was able to rally and reassure the nation after 9/11, at least until he turned his attention to Iraq. But the pandemic showed how politics can wedge itself into a national crisis. Presidents want to lead a nation; they also want to be reelected.
Monarchs have no such concern. When they do inspire, it’s done without an eye on opinion polls.
Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, famously reassured Britons by refusing to leave London during World War II when the German Luftwaffe bombed the city nightly.
The queen came to the fore in 2020 during the pandemic lockdown — which was far more meticulously observed in Britain than in America. Evoking a song that raised the country’s spirits during the darkest days of World War II, she told the nation the pandemic would end, that they would meet again with family and friends.
She did get it badly wrong sometimes. The younger queen was hopelessly out of touch with working people. And she completely misread the mood of a nation that needed to grieve after the 1997 death of Princess Diana, for whom she proposed a private funeral. Yes, we Brits keep calm and carry on but it’s no longer a nation that sees a stiff upper lip as a virtue.
So today, I’ll make a cup of tea and tune in to the funeral. I do think it’s time to retire the monarchy, but I’ll be forever thankful for a queen who broke protocol in the 1980s and made it known she was concerned by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s treatment of the poor and refusal to place sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa.
And I’ll be grateful for a sovereign who had the grace to help cement the Northern Ireland peace process by shaking hands with Martin McGuiness, a former commander of the Irish Republican Army, which in 1979 assassinated the queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in Donegal Bay.
That was the best of Elizabeth’s reign, important deeds quietly made with no ask for recognition. We won’t see her like again.