Queen Elizabeth II Symbolized the Monarchy in Evolution

NUMATA Sadaaki

Billions of people worldwide were riveted to the television screen depicting the pomp and pageantry mourning the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Clear messages were conveyed on the importance of the Queen, as a symbol for people to gather around and be united spiritually. President Macron of France described this to the British media: “To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was the Queen”. People felt nostalgic about the link with the past seventy years of her reign. At the same time, they were struck by the Queen’s ability to adapt to the modern world while maintaining traditional values such as dignity, service, devotion, and hard work. They were reminded that the monarchy is an institution that is in constant evolution.

Evolution is an important factor that sustains the British monarchy, as shown by the Queen’s actions on some key issues.

The unity of the United Kingdom has been seriously challenged in the past. In her 2012 visit to Belfast, she shook the hand of former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who at the time was Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. The gesture was said to cement the peace process 14 years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence. During the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the Queen took a great political risk when she urged bystanders outside a church service to “think very carefully about the future”. The message carried very considerable weight. King Charles III may not wish to see his country fall apart, but some say that the matter will probably arise again within three years.

During the seven decades of her reign, there have been major changes in Britain and the world such as women’s empowerment, the increase of immigrants, and the growing emphasis on diversity and inclusion. In still male-dominated Britain, the Queen took the initiative to carve out her role as a women’s leader and engaged in new experiments. Her Christmas TV message, started in 1957, has become an integral part of the season. She set an example for the royal family members to go close to and interact with the people gathered on public occasions. She maintained sphinxlike neutrality on politically charged issues such as Brexit except for her above-mentioned comment on the Scottish referendum.

Thanks largely to the Queen’s conscious accessibility to the public both at home and abroad, it is said that alongside the BBC, the monarchy is one of two pillars of British soft power. This soft power has its humorous aspects, such as the Queen’s appearance with James Bond at the opening of the London Olympics in 2012, and her tea party with another British icon, Paddington Bear, in the course of the Platinum Jubilee earlier this year. It is speculated that 4 or 5 billion television viewers may have watched the Queen’s funeral globally. If that is the case, the Queen demonstrated in her death the peak of Britain’s soft power.

The Today Program, the highest-rated current affairs program on BBC Radio 4, held a debate on September 21, 2022, on the topic “What do you want from our monarchy?” Simon Jenkins, a veteran journalist, professing himself to be skeptical of someone holding high office simply by virtue of birth, said nevertheless that monarchy may be the least worst kind of statehood. As a measure of the public support for the Queen, he cited the 10-mile-long queue of people, where some waited more than 24 hours, to pay respect to the Queen lying in state.

The consensus among the former top civil servant, the Canadian history professor, and the three journalists who took part in the debate seemed to be that monarchy can be sustained if democracy wants it. For that, King Charles III will probably need to slim down the royal family, and, though he is entitled to be consulted, advise and warn on affairs of state, should refrain from getting into a public situation on controversial subjects including his favorite cause, the environment.

As one who served as a diplomat in Britain for 8 years (1966-1970 and 1994-1998) and in three other Commonwealth countries for a total of more than 6 years (Australia 1989-1991, Pakistan 2000-2002, and Canada 2005-2007), I have personally felt the evolution of the British monarchy in several ways. One is how the British monarch is perceived in Commonwealth countries. In Australia in the early 1990s, I felt that republicanism could potentially become active, and it may very well be the case in a few years. In contrast, the Canadians seemed genuinely attached to the Queen, and warmly welcomed Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko partly because of their favorable disposition towards monarchy, when I accompanied them as their spokesman in 2009. Second is how the accidental death of Princess Diana motivated the Queen to make the royal family more open to the public. I remember vividly the outpouring of grief felt by the public shown by the multiple layers of flowers stretching for scores of meters outside the gate of Kensington Palace, and how Prime Minister Blair’s words “People’s Princess” prompted the Queen to address the mourning public on television.

It is significant that Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako attended the state funeral of the Queen whom they admired so deeply. I hope that Their Majesties’ experience of seeing firsthand the strong attachment of the British people to their beloved Queen has given them some hints as to how to bring the Imperial Family closer to the people and make it more sustainable.

NUMATA Sadaaki is a former ambassador to Canada and Pakistan, and the chairman of The English-Speaking Union of Japan.

Note: This essay originally appeared on the online site of the English- Speaking Union of Japan.