I am a republican, always have been, and yet I now feel a great sense of loss. And not only because a ninety-six-year-old mother, grandmother and great-grandmother has died, which is always an occasion for sadness, whether the deceased was a monarch or an “ordinary” member of the public. No, also because Elizabeth II represented something incredibly important. She embodied values that are at risk of extinction. She represented history in an era of anti-historical hysteria, forbearance in a time of narcissism and public service in an era of self-worship and self-regard.
That was the great irony of Elizabeth II: she was the pinnacle of the establishment and yet she bristled, with every fiber of her being, against the values of the new establishment. She was accidentally countercultural, a traditionalist rebel — and I, for one, loved her for it.
This is the end of an era in so many ways. Most immediately it’s the end of the second Elizabethan age, of the longest reign of a monarch in the history of the British Isles. But it is also the end of a social, cultural chapter — a chapter I think we will miss more than we know right now.
I will remember the Queen for standing up for stoicism, for resisting the extraordinary and bullying pressure that was put on her following the death of Princess Diana to emote publicly, to advertise her wounds to the watching world. She refused, preferring instead to maintain that dignified and essential distinction between private life and public life, between how one might feel and how one behaves.
I will remember her for representing a connection with the past when we were so often instructed to feel ashamed of it. For being the personification of history in a time of frenzy, when statues were being torn down, buildings were being renamed and shade was being cast upon virtually every era of Britain’s past.
Amid this turn against history, the Queen provided people with a connection to yesteryear. She was history made flesh, a quiet one-woman revolt against the idea that the past was entirely terrible and that we must sever all links with it.
And I will remember her for manifesting public service. For devoting her entire life to the nation, the Crown, to an ideal. That cut against so much of the grain of the times we live in; against the instant gratification and shallowness of celebrity culture, social-media preening and identity politics.
Where modern society constantly sends the signal that we should obsess over our own self-esteem and jealously cultivate our own identities, there was the Queen saying: “No. I live for something beyond myself. I live for something bigger, something grander, something else.”
You do not have to be a believer in the Crown to recognize the virtue of this, the wonder of it. The Queen was a reminder, a constant reminder, that there is more to life than the self. That folding oneself into a mission or a vision is often a very wonderful thing to do. Our narcissistic era forgets this at its peril.
Just behold the images of the Queen. There she is in 1945, volunteering in the war. In 1977, rising above the brickbats of punk. In 1997, resisting the sarcastic tormenting of an elite that wanted her to weep on cue. In 2021, deftly dealing with the Harry-and-Meghan crisis. “Recollections may vary,” the Palace calmly said of the accusations of racism in the royal family.
Through it all the Queen kept her counsel, reserved her emotions and did her duty. That was a Herculean achievement in this era of emotional incontinence. The Queen was an icon not only to monarchists but to all of us who believe that there is virtue in self-sacrifice, emotional control and public duty.
You don’t need a PhD in politics to know why the Queen remained so popular into the modern era. She represented solidity in an era of flux. As the fragmentary creed of identity politics took hold, history was insulted and even everyday language was constantly being overhauled, there was the Queen — calm, constant and always connecting us to something earlier and often something better than our mad twenty-first century.
So this republican says God bless Elizabeth II. And God bless us all — we will need it in the tumult that is likely to follow the death, not only of an inspirational woman, but also of a way of life. The Queen is dead — Long Live the Queen’s Virtues.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.