The Fantasy Behind Queen Elizabeth II’s Reign

Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday, in Scotland, ending a reign of seventy years, which began in Winston Churchill’s second premiership, in the early nineteen-fifties. She is succeeded by her son, who will now be called Charles III. The Queen’s death has initiated a period of sustained mourning in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere around the world, and has kicked off debates about the value of constitutional monarchy. To discuss the Queen’s life, and the future of Britain, I spoke by phone with Simon Schama, a historian who is the author of many books on British history, a contributing editor at the Financial Times, and a professor at Columbia University. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed whether the monarchy really is apolitical, as its proponents often claim, what admiration for royalty has in common with religion, and how the British people are likely to view their new head of state.

What is it exactly that you and other people are mourning?

The extraordinary thing is when you manage, against all the odds, to actually make the “family” bit of the Royal Family work, notwithstanding that three of your children’s marriages collapsed and there were sundry disasters. The marriage between her and Philip was amazingly durable. The weird flip side is that, if you succeed even on a fantastical level of having a nation as a kind of hugely extended family, you feel your mom is gone, really. You do feel a kind of mother or grandmother or auntie has left, even though you knew she was very much coming to the end of her allotted term of years. I think that’s what a lot of people are feeling.

One of the truisms, or platitudes, really, is that she’s the only monarch everybody has ever known. But not me. I’m so old that I remember her father quite well, who died in 1952. She had both an uncle and a father who didn’t really want to be king. Her uncle abdicated, and her father was stricken by shyness. He upped his chain-smoking during the war and afterward, and was dead of lung cancer. And so I kind of remember the transition from this relatively young but utterly wasted and collapsed father to this young woman who had to remake the institution all over again. Psychologically, everything’s a bit off-kilter, as it is with a family member passing.

Orwell said England was “a family with the wrong members in control.”


But how do you like that idea? What does that idea mean to you? Is it something to strive for as a country?

Well, why have a constitutional monarchy at all? In the nineteenth century, the answer was that it seemed to be better than autocracy on the one hand and revolution on the other. Even as Queen Victoria’s powers were stripped down, she reinvented the possibility of an authority that had not worked before. Walter Bagehot, the constitutional writer, made a case for constitutional monarchy as something that was morally exemplary, that had august ceremony built into it. But then he said something really much more interesting. He said it should be intelligible to ordinary people. And that’s where the family came in—if [people] could somehow see the royalty as the embodiment of the nation, the mysterious and magical inheritor of an endless past, but also, in some respects, as absolutely, recognizably human just like them, then you pulled off an amazing political stunt.

It’s a tricky thing to bring off, but it all begins with a sense of how the nation wants to see itself embodied in figures, whether they’re wheels of the political system, or a messianic despot like Vladimir Putin. Is there a way of actually constructing an identity to which you belong, which is above the egotistical abrasiveness of politics? That’s what the Queen represented, and that’s what Charles has to carry on.

You just said that the royals had pulled off an amazing political stunt, and then mentioned them being separate from politics. I’ve noticed this tension a lot in the obituaries, which talk about Elizabeth bringing unity and stability and upholding tradition. These are things people are welcome to be in favor of, but I would not exactly say that they’re apolitical.

That’s very interesting and astute. The institution of monarchy, like everything else, is necessarily a political choice. You’re probably right, but I think a much more interesting thing is that the Queen ostensibly stuck very rigorously to political neutrality. Was she for the E.U., was she for leaving the E.U., was she against leaving it? There was a hullabaloo when she wore a hat with the colors of the E.U. flag, complete with gold trimming. But I think the unexamined texts of her reign are her Christmas messages. I thought they would be the most anodyne, vanilla, absolutely nonpolitical statements. But, very famously, in the 1983 Christmas Day message, she said that the most serious problem the world had was the division between rich and poor countries. And she got into trouble for that. Similarly, she was known to be in favor of sanctions against apartheid South Africa, which is why Nelson Mandela loved her so much.

This brought about a certain amount of tension with the government of Margaret Thatcher.

That’s right, and that was why some thought she’d actually extended the royal prerogative illegitimately, as coded, or refined, or nuanced as it might be in a Christmas message. This was kind of an acceptable way of moving out of her ostensible neutrality. And then there was an attempt in Rhodesia during the Unilateral Declaration of Independence to say that it was what the Queen really wanted. That’s what [the Rhodesian Prime Minister] Ian Smith said, even though she followed the government line [in opposition to Rhodesian independence led by its white minority].

Right, we can sit here and say that we’re glad the Queen didn’t support the Universal Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia in the mid-sixties, and we’re glad that she wanted sanctions against South Africa in the eighties. Or we could talk about the recent Guardian series about certain laws the monarchy is exempt from. But all of these things are political. Not partisan necessarily, but political.

I don’t disagree with any of that, but I think if we look around the world, not just to Putin but to someone like Narendra Modi, there’s this issue of establishing a sense of national community or national identity against the people who do not belong to it. That’s what Modi is doing. That’s what Xi Jinping is doing. That is emphatically what Putin is doing, and it’s what Trump was doing. So you are right to be skeptical about the possibility of the monarchy ever being a completely apolitical institution. But it’s a political institution that seeks to do the least harm. In that respect, it’s been improbably successful.

What did the Queen herself do that meant something to people? You’re laughing.

What is the fairy dust? Who the hell knows? On the surface, it’s so paradoxical. Lord Altrincham—John Grigg—who was a fierce critic of the monarchy of the Queen in the nineteen-sixties, described her as being the captain of the school hockey team or something like that, and therefore not really fit to know the world. Very interestingly, he took it all back, and said, “Well, the reason why she behaves decently is because she is authentically an absolutely decent person.” It’s very striking coming from him. It seems an extraordinary paradox that someone from that kind of remote, esoteric, and mandarin-like distant world of horses and hounds and courtiers should actually be able to communicate spontaneously with ordinary people. If you’ve seen her do it, that’s the way it is. That’s what she does. I suspect Charles will be able to do it, too.

I might argue that, if Charles is able to do it, it suggests that anyone who’s put in this position and given the surrounding pomp and circumstance will be able to do it. Maybe it’s more about what the people want to feel than what the monarch is actually doing.

You wouldn’t want to do it, because you’d have to do it every day, six times a day. Hospital here, a school there, old-age pensioners there, the Ambassador of Burkina Faso at three o’clock. You would not want to do this. At the time of the Diamond Jubilee, it was just absolutely bloody well pelting down with rain. The rain was coming down horizontally, but there were hundreds of thousands of people on the banks of the Thames. It was this vile day in May, British spring, of course, and there she and Philip were, hour upon hour. It was an absolutely appalling job, really. You have to not mind doing this over and over again. It’s a sense of vocation, which is simultaneously weirdly mystical, sort of quasi-religious. And she often sounded that way when she described it. It’s also unbelievably mundane—grindingly, relentlessly, exhaustively commonplace.

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