By Syed Badrul Ahsan
It is the end of an era unprecedented in British history. In her reign of seventy years, Queen Elizabeth II was witness to some of the most remarkable of events in the chronicles of time.
And yet it is hard to dispel the thought that her ascension to the throne was a pure accident, for accident it was that propelled her father, George VI, to the monarchy on the abdication of his brother Edward VIII in 1936. Had Uncle Edward given up the woman he loved for the throne, Elizabeth would have been a princess, her father one of the many dukes who make up the royal clan.
But there is something called fate, the Immanent Will as the writer Thomas Hardy would put it. It was fate which in an earlier era had Charles I lose his crown and his life. And then his son Charles II came back in triumphant vengeance to reclaim his father’s legacy. He disinterred Oliver Cromwell’s bones and had his skull displayed in public for days following a posthumous hanging of the man who had presided over his father’s murder.
Fate has been part of the British royal tradition. Elizabeth I felt little compunction in dispatching Mary, Queen of Scots, to the gallows because she wanted no threat from the latter to her imperial authority. Elizabeth I lived for sixteen years after Mary’s beheading. She was succeeded on the throne by Mary’s son James I. The stories go on and on.
Princess Elizabeth found herself catapulted to Queen Elizabeth II on the sudden death of George VI in 1952. For the young woman, it was the beginning of a period in life that would stretch to seventy years — and that in addition to the twenty six she had already come through — and see her put her stamp on the life of her subjects.
In these seven decades she saw no fewer than fifteen prime ministers, the last of them gaining her royal seal a mere two days before her demise, all the way from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss. That is a remarkable record by any standard. No monarch anywhere has come remotely close.
In these seventy years, Elizabeth II reigned in absolutely royal fashion, showing no signs of where she stood in relation to her prime ministers. Of course, she had her views, her opinions on national issues. But no single instance has been there in public to suggest that she intervened in the making of policy or interfered with politics.
There were all the moments when she may have felt uncomfortable with some of her prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair being a couple of instances. But she kept her feelings under wraps. She was the monarch. She stayed above everything. She was circumspect.
And from that Olympian height she interacted with global leaders, with the powerful and the mediocre and even the plainly ridiculous. To each of them she was polite and every one of them demonstrated the necessary deference to her. She enjoyed conversing with Jawaharlal Nehru; she welcomed Ayub Khan to Buckingham Palace; she was happy meeting Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at a Commonwealth summit.
Thirteen American presidents have come and gone in the seventy years she symbolized Britain and the countries in the Commonwealth where she was head of state. Her interest in Africa, beginning in her youth and continuing till the end of her life, was a sustained affair. Her love for distant Australia and Canada was unwavering.
In the Elizabethan era, nations in Asia and Africa found their way out of British colonial rule to freedom. Malaysia, Singapore, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania are some of the countries which gained independence on her watch. In her times South Africa and Rhodesia threw off the shackles of white racist rule (the latter becoming Zimbabwe) and emerged as proper nation-states imbued with ideas of rule of law.
To every world leader she was Her Majesty. But with Nelson Mandela there was an exception. The great man called her Elizabeth and she appeared happy with it. She went horse-riding with Ronald Reagan.
And great men and women impressed her inasmuch as she impressed them with her cool demeanour. Charles de Gaulle was properly respectful toward her; Angela Merkel admired her; Indira Gandhi enjoyed conversing with her. To every statesman and stateswoman who found themselves in her company, Elizabeth II was the monarch who did not fail to demonstrate the grace associated with her place in the global scheme of things.
She suffered through the tragedies and mishaps in her family. Her children married and then divorced; a former daughter-in-law’s life after marriage worried her; the shame heaped on a son accused of sexual impropriety was grief of the highest form for her; a grandson and his wife, moving out of royalty and engaging in a tell-all interview, appalled her.
But she said not a word. Her suffering was always private. It was demonstrated in all its depth when at the memorial services for her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, she sat alone in her grief. Something broke in her when Philip died.
In public, though, it was a monarch who ran the show. At her garden parties, on visits to the Chelsea flower shows, in riding her horses, in handling the furore arising from Diana’s tragic end, Elizabeth II was the epitome of royal grandeur. The people needed to see a monarch confident in her bearings. Elizabeth was that monarch.
She admired James Bond movies. She bantered with the boxer Muhammad Ali. She was not shocked when Michelle Obama placed her arms around her, prompting her to reciprocate. She loved her dogs. She was happy meeting Marilyn Monroe and Kate Winslet. She bantered with Paddington the Bear on her Platinum Jubilee.
As the queue lengthens in London, with tens of thousands of mourners filing past her casket in Westminster Hall as a final mark of respect for a queen they have known all their lives, it is the power of heritage the United Kingdom has for centuries been heir to that comes alive once again. It is a ceremonial monarchy which these mourners — and people around the world — show reverence to.
Yet the symbolism is too powerful to be ignored. Elizabeth II was the epitome of royalty which reigned but did not rule; and yet her dominion straddled the hearts of men and women who have valued discipline, rule of law and enlightenment as exemplified by the power of grandeur.
In Elizabeth II shone bright the power of grandeur. The light of her life has been put out. But the majesty she represented, the imperial brilliance she upheld without imperiousness coming into it, promises to live on.
History will treat her with affection, for she treated history with respect. In large measure, the story of Elizabeth II is history written and sketched and told over the past seventy years.