The shock was real. At an LBC radio microphone, announcing the Queen’s death, I found it impossible to hold myself together. I welled up. My voice cracked. Now, I am nobody’s idea of a rabid monarchist. Nor can the death of anyone at 96, even in this age of medical triumphalism, be considered a surprise.
So, what was going on? Alongside a momentous shift in the feel of the country, memories of my father’s death in 2020 were suddenly flooding back. This was the constitutional as personal. Friends and colleagues felt the same – that the Queen’s death reached them intimately, in a way they hadn’t remotely expected.
Isn’t that interesting? Nobody, after all, feels intimately invested in the lives of prime ministers, beyond those who are actually part of their families. Perhaps that rather moth-eaten phrase “mother of the nation” has something in it after all.
The success of Elizabeth II in steering monarchy through most of a century of turbulent and often painful change is not definitive proof that in the modern world a constitutional monarchy “works”, but it is proof that this constitutional monarchy, led by this woman in her own particular way, did work, and beyond all reasonable expectation. As we think about her reign and the future for Charles III, the question of why is the only one to focus on.
There is an obvious conundrum here. Everybody talks about the late Queen’s personal modesty. That was real: filming her and writing about her, I saw it close up. (Nobody who is vain would have worn those lurid two-pieces with huge matching hats.) And yet in the modern world the British monarchy, with its vast palaces, clattering cavalcades of ritual pomp, and general penchant for gilding every available lily, is about as immodest as public life gets. There was always something quiet about the Queen. There has never been anything quiet about monarchy as an institution: without ostentation it’s almost pointless.
The clue is perhaps simply in the Queen’s personality and gender. She was a naturally shy woman who understood her family history well enough to realise that monarchy in an age of democracy is never safe. The role was always more important than the individual. (Those costumes and hats were designed so that she could be noticed half a mile away, pursuant to her famous motto, “I have to be seen to be believed.”)
Politically, of course, she never stood out. She played the game very cautiously, keeping her opinions entirely private and confining her public utterances to bland orthodoxies and Christian-inspired reassurances. “Have you come far?” and, “What do you do? How interesting”, were rarely followed up with vigorous conversational exchanges.
Friends of the new king – I spoke to Nicholas Soames, at whose first wedding Charles was best man – are certain that he has learned this lesson from his mother. There will be no more of the notorious “black spider” letters to government ministers haranguing them about this or that; as king he will not be summoning politicians to explain what they don’t understand about farming, architecture or the environment. He’s an intelligent as well as an emotional man who has had long enough to study the Queen at work. We will see. But for the monarchy to survive, such a change of approach is essential.
There is a second part of her success, however, which Charles cannot replicate – something so obvious, so apparently banal, it is easy to forget: her gender. Just as the Roman Catholic Church succeeded so well for centuries by putting Mary at the heart of its iconography, making itself a more female-centred form of religion than northern European Protestantism – all those angry men with beards – so monarchy feels different led by a woman.
If the Queen was the apex of the state, then the state has sometimes seemed a little gentler, kinder and more empathetic than it might have done under a king overseeing mostly male politicians. Imagine a bristling, military-minded king of the Duke of Edinburgh’s generation as head of state during the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the miners’ strike. Things would have felt at least subtly different. This is an imaginary, parallel country, but we would not have seen, I suggest, the Queen’s emphasis on forgiveness and sympathy, or the soft-edged, self-mocking humour of the London Olympics and the Paddington Bear moment at the Platinum Jubilee. Monarchy would have generated a different kind of enthusiasm from spikier, harder-edged people.
The Queen has, in short, been popular because she has been a calm, smiling, friendly head of state. The historian Simon Schama made a good point in the Financial Times when he suggested that you only needed to glance “at the parade of authoritarians who, from one end of the world to the other, make militarised xenophobia the measure of national self-esteem, to be grateful that the Queen supplied a more benign focus of national allegiance”. Beautifully put. Quite right.
Filming her in the past I have noticed this “more benign focus” at a local and domestic level. In short, against the primping, self-delighted celebrity and big-money culture of modern Britain, the Queen and her entourage focused tours on ordinary people doing ordinary jobs, helping one another, often in the shadows. Remote, real farmers’ markets, schools, care homes, suburban town centres. It was physically demanding and often bone-chillingly cold just following her.
This more benign focus came, of course, with the awesome length of her reign and her close interest in world affairs, making her, as it were, a living memory stick for the British state few other nations can benefit from. Leading politicians from all sides tell me that private conversations with her, often after some traumatic choice or failure, have been genuinely informative and reassuring. Having someone there who has “seen it all before” isn’t the worst idea.
In terms of social change, too, with a more traditional male authority figure, would the monarchy have slalomed so relatively smoothly from the almost all-white, hierarchical, rules-driven Britain of the 1950s to the country we are today? The Queen’s fascination with the Commonwealth, which drove a succession of British ministers quietly mad, resulted in a head of state without a shred of racial prejudice – whatever Meghan and the Hollywood set believe.
The scandals and failures of the Queen’s children are the obvious retort to this. We are talking here about her public role, however, and in scary times – most recently the coronavirus pandemic – having a motherly if rather remote female figure as the representative of embattled state power has been positive.
Well, we are not Elizabethans anymore. With Charles, apparently we are “Carolines”, sweet or otherwise. Anthony Seldon, who wrote for the New Statesman last week, pointed out in a tweet that this week began with Boris Johnson heading Her Majesty’s government and has closed with Liz Truss heading His Majesty’s Government – a switch that has never happened since we became a democracy.
The British are being sucked into a sudden vortex of change. For almost everyone, their energy bills matter much more than the identity of their head of state. But the latter sets the tone for so much – stamp or watermark on the era. It is too early for definitive-sounding prophecies, but I think it’s fair to say that if Truss and her new government face awesome challenges, the same is true of King Charles III. Nothing in our public life will feel quite the same ever again.
[See also: Will Charles be the last King of Scotland?]