In 1947, when she turned 21, Princess Elizabeth gave a coming-of-age speech to the Commonwealth. Like almost everything she said and did in a life of 96 years, it was a personal statement of public duty. She closed with a “solemn act of dedication.”
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service … God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
The words were archaic even then; like something out of the King James Version of the Bible, or Arthurian legend, or Tolkien. But the ancientness of the words, and their wonder to modern ears, is part of their power. And there was also this: The person who spoke them seems to have really meant them.
The one thing that nearly all observers comment on, even those who don’t much like the idea of Canada’s constitutional monarchy, is that Queen Elizabeth II was accorded such popular affection and respect because she worked to earn it. She was born into exceptional privilege, but what stood out (unlike many other members of previous and subsequent generations of the Royal Family) was her exceptional dedication to service – to the duties that are the justification for the privilege.
It was hard not to like someone who worked so hard at her role.
She fulfilled that role right up to the end, meeting with and appointing her last prime minister, Britain’s Liz Truss, just two days before she died. It says something about how long she had been Canada’s head of state that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, sworn into office in 1968, was already the Queen’s fourth Canadian PM. Her first was Louis St. Laurent – born 15 years after Confederation.
In our system of government, the Crown is both a person and a symbol; an abstract ideal and a flesh-and-blood woman or man, with all the frailties and failings of human beings. The arrangement works within a Tolkien fairy tale or an Arthurian romance, but beyond the pages of mythology, asking someone to turn an entire life over to this job of always reigning and never ruling is to ask the near-impossible. Referring to it as a “job” misconstrues the situation, and how foreign it is to the modern world.
A cynic might say that, to do the near-impossible, the Queen put on the greatest method acting performance of all time; that she so inhabited the role that the audience was never able to see the “real” person behind the curtain. But it may be more accurate to say that she never dropped out of character because she wasn’t playing a character. The real person was the Queen, and vice versa. Her life was her duty and her duty, her life.
That is why it is so hard to imagine anyone else doing what she did, quite as well as she did it. The job of being a royal – on the clock from birth to death; surrounded by aristocratic wealth yet supposed to embody middle-class virtues; asked to be a model of stolidity and restraint while subjected to the probes and temptations of a celebrity media circus – has proved beyond the capacity of more than a few of her children and grandchildren.
The Royal Family, being human, is about as messed up as the average family, except the rest of us don’t live under a microscope. As a result, the Queen was often subjected to family scandal. But she was never the subject of it, which says something of the standard she set.
The most recent family disappointment, with Prince Harry and Meghan wanting out of royal responsibilities while keeping the royal titles that are key to unlocking the lucre of American celebrity emoluments, is the embodiment of this conflict – between duty and desire; between I Serve and I Want; between taking advantage of a situation for profit, and taking responsibility. It was always clear where the Queen stood on all that.
In a world of charlatans and fakers and self-actualizing hypocrites – to enter the worlds of politics and business and marketing and spin is to take their census – she was the real deal.
In the Second World War, back when the Queen was just a young princess learning to drive an army truck, the slogan of the day was, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” For 70 years on the throne, that’s what she did. She did her job, and made the doing her life’s work – from the beginning right to the end.
Globe and Mail Update