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The Way I See It: Coronation Baby

Editor’s note: This column, written in late August, was originally slated to run in The Bridge’s Sept. 7, 2022 issue. Space considerations required its postponement. Queen Elizabeth II died, age 96, on Sept. 8.

One of my most treasured possessions is a set of British coins issued in the year of my birth, the first to bear the image of the new Queen Elizabeth II. Family lore has it that these were given to all British children born in the Coronation year, although Google’s been no help in verifying this. 

Since the Queen’s coronation predated my arrival in a Glasgow hospital by a mere 10 days, my life and her reign have thus far run in parallel, which may be why I find myself feeling oddly attached to HM the Q, as I’ve come to think of her, and distressed by the thought of her increasing frailty and her ultimate passing. Her various jubilees — twenty-fifth, fiftieth, seventieth — have also reminded me of how damn old I’m getting myself.

Having long since become a U.S. citizen, and as a firm believer in democracy, I have no love for monarchy as an institution in itself. The British throne’s past occupants have included tyrants, murderers, madmen, Nazi sympathizers, drunkards, libertines, gluttons, and greedheads. But HM the Q is none of these; rather, she’s served over her record-long reign as an exemplar of decency, self-discipline, fidelity, and devotion to duty that I can’t help but admire.

These are old-fashioned virtues, to be sure, but they’re hardly obsolete. They strike me as desirable characteristics in any head of state, whether they’re a figurehead, as in Britain, or capable of wielding substantial executive power, as in the U.S. The polar opposite character traits of the last occupant of the White House would have been a lot less terrifying, I believe, if his official roles had been confined to ribbon-cuttings, greetings of foreign dignitaries, and an annual speech to Congress. 

As a constitutional monarch, the Queen is at the mercy of whatever party’s prime minister is in power. She’s required to deliver the annual Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament, setting forth the majority party’s agenda whether she agrees with it or not. Her rights as monarch are limited: “to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.” She is in fact consulted on a weekly basis by her prime ministers, and if “The Crown” series on television and other sources are to be believed, she often has valuable advice to offer, based on her constant, careful study of public issues and her long lifetime’s perspectives on them.

But when she speaks on public issues on her own initiative — which she’s done a grand total of five times —  (most recently in rallying the nation around dealing with the COVID pandemic) her words carry weight far beyond those of a typical politician. That notable televised speech in 2020 framed the nation’s response to COVID as a patriotic exercise, extolled the need for self-isolation, or “lockdown,” as a duty citizens had to one another, and lauded National Health Service  workers as selfless heroes. By all accounts it was a more effective appeal to good behavior than Boris Johnson’s bombast about being part of a “wartime government.” 

In that speech she cited her first national address, in 1940 as war raged in Europe, as a 14-year-old princess encouraging homesick British children who had been shipped overseas for safety to hang in until victory was won — and, by extension, encouraging everyone who listened to keep striving and sacrificing for victory over Fascism.

Elizabeth II is so widely revered because she’s the literal embodiment of patriotism, serving as a living focal point for national unity and pride and as a motivator for service to country and community in a way that no flag,  anthem, or coat of arms can match. It’s the strength of character and rectitude she’s consistently displayed that makes that reverence and respect possible. She’s far from flawless; the highly publicized dramas of her four children point to parental shortcomings, for instance, but she’s never let down her country.

Her Majesty the Queen is also thoroughly human, at times downright fun. The video she made with Daniel Craig for the opening of the 2012 Olympics, in which the 86-year-old monarch, trailed by an entourage of corgis, appeared to parachute into a stadium beside Agent 007, dispelled any notions of stuffiness and lack of humor. Her face as one of her beloved horses wins a steeplechase radiates childlike delight. 

Recently, the world witnessed the poignant image of a tiny, black-clad figure sitting alone in St. George’s Chapel during Prince Philip’s funeral, masked and isolated as Britain’s COVID restrictions required. A solitary tear, quickly wiped away, momentarily betrayed the old, grieving woman beneath the regal facade. Throughout her over 70 years on the throne, HM the Q has shown us how to behave in adversity, loss, national crisis, and the most personal of griefs. That’s quite an achievement for a figurehead.