For all the apparent contradiction, her reign was the epitome of what a constitutional monarchy should be. For decades, she set the tone for the rest of society, provided continuity of leadership, while allowing her ministers to govern, and won over the hearts and minds of generation after generation. In doing so, she fulfilled an important function that an elected president would struggle to emulate.
The pressure of being crowned Queen and becoming head of state at just 25 is hard for any of us to imagine. It was a most unusual life and one that she was, obviously, born into. But when thinking about her life, we should remember that, unlike most of us, she did not really have the freedom to choose her own path.
Yet she put her shoulder to the task and did this extremely difficult job extraordinarily well for more than 70 years. Even critics of the idea of monarchy tend to admit this.
For the staunchest of royalists, Queen Elizabeth was the centre of the world, but even for less passionate supporters, she acted as a largely unseen steadying force, like the ballast of a ship in a storm, which is one reason why the days since her death may have seemed slightly disconcerting for some.
In an article on the Conversation website about why people who did not know the Queen shed tears for her, Professor Stephen Coleman wrote of “the value of emotionally resonant shared narratives”, adding “… it is only by creating and sustaining them that we can hope to have any control over what the world means to us and we to it”.
It is not overly sentimental to become emotional about the death of our sovereign. For many people, the Royal Family has become almost an extended family whose highs and lows they follow with keen interest. And while some dismissively regard this as a form of reality TV entertainment and gossip, it is more than that.
The monarch’s role as an apolitical leader appointed in accordance with historic practices, who speaks to us through the good times and the bad, providing calm reassurance when necessary, gave her a unique power, almost like a little bit of magic.
As Archbishop Justin Welby highlighted in his sermon, the Queen’s address to the nation in April 2020, after the Covid pandemic took hold, was an example of her talent for leadership.
“Together we are tackling this disease and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it,” she said. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
These words, referencing the famous wartime Vera Lynn song We'll Meet Again, were far more reassuring than any lines from a politician at that time; and indeed, had a politician said them they would not have meant as much. We knew she was telling us what we wanted to hear but, coming from her, it meant something more.
A year later, in April 2021, she once again showed true leadership when she sat, socially distanced and alone in compliance with Covid rules, in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle for the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip.
She was also a woman who led her country through a period of profound societal change from an era where ideas like “a woman’s place is in the home” were commonplace to one in which women’s right to equality – if not quite yet true in reality – is almost universally accepted. Altering the royal succession, to allow women to inherit the throne on the same basis as men, helped confirm this obvious human right.
But Queen Elizabeth provided more than leadership at a distance; she was significant to millions of people on a much more personal level and to a far greater extent than any monarch before.
Her regular public appearances meant that she met an astonishingly large proportion of the population. According to one recent poll, 31 per cent of people in the UK said they had either seen or met her in real life.
And while many of these meetings were necessarily fleeting, she clearly had the ability to make a positive impression that lasted. Instead of the formal, reserved and ‘monarchical’ character some people expected, they found a woman with a twinkle in her eye, a characterful person who was engaging, humorous and both interesting and interested.
She was not perfect, no one is, and did on occasion struggle. Following the death of Princess Diana, some thought she appeared cold. But this was merely an impression resulting from the public image of the Queen at the time, rather than the reality of her actual private life. The obvious love of William and Harry and the rest of her family tells a different story.
Queen Elizabeth did not create modern Britain, but she was its figurehead and the majesty of her office may have helped to act as a check on the worst impulses of power-hungry politicians.
Importantly, she was not unbending and had the sense to gradually adapt over the years in response to the rise of more open, liberal attitudes. And, in doing so, she helped to guide us towards a better society. The continuity she provided made the pace of change seem less frenetic, particularly for those who, at times, felt left behind.
The changes she made were never really explained and there were no great policy statements amid fanfare; instead it was done quietly, carefully and subtly which, in the long term, had a significant effect. Overall, the values that Queen Elizabeth represented and embodied are enduring and need to endure.
Without her, we may feel somewhat lost for a while. But that’s all right, just as it is to shed a tear over the loss of a remarkable human being who was set a unique and daunting challenge at a young age and rose to it quite magnificently.