Queen Elizabeth II: goodbye to an era of humbleness, civility and duty

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 9: People gather at the Buckingham Palace to lay flowers to honour Queen Elizabeth II in London, England on September 9, 2022. (Photo by Loredana Sangiuliano/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 9: People gather at the Buckingham Palace to lay flowers to honour Queen Elizabeth II in London, England on September 9, 2022. (Photo by Loredana Sangiuliano/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II: female monarchs have always been the most successful in England. Although Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria were marked by the nation’s expansion and tremendous growth, Elizabeth II’s strength lay in Her Majesty’s reign of stability and national unity, beginning with the aftermath of WWII and her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Elizabeth weathered changing multiple times with a British stiff upper lip, maintaining a national dignity throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and culminating in a life dedicated to service til the very end.

Queen Elizabeth’s strength of character can be exemplified in her welcoming of her 15th Prime Minster, Liz Truss, to form Her Majesty’s government, just two days before her passing. She also managed to pass away at her beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where her great love and husband, Prince Philip, had proposed to her, and where she said she wanted to spend the last moments of her life. In her own quiet, resolute way, she employed constancy and subtle resolve here too, spending more time at Balmoral in the Scotland highlands to ensure the outcome, where she did indeed pass away surrounded by loved ones (now) King Charles and Princess Anne, who were with her in the end, with Princes Andrew and Edward and his wife Sophie of Wessex also having traveled there at the time.

As the crown’s longest reigning monarch—having celebrated her Platinum Jubilee marking 70 years of service to the throne just a few months ago—I fondly remembered the first time I watched her coronation on video display at the Tower of London’s crown jewels exhibit many years ago. Just 25 when she transitioned to the queen after her father, King George VI’s passing, her reign exemplified a time of civility, tradition, and a belief in something grander than the self: the country’s greater identity.

An intensely private person, having only given one interview to the BBC centered around the coronation, Elizabeth has been a loyal devotee to the crown, exemplified in her reported love of service, where she probably garnered the most inspiration from her countrymen originally. She loved her job and worked tirelessly at it, a work ethic that endeared her to her people during WWII, where she served as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service fixing cars and trucks. This work ethic is perhaps best understood by a quote from her grandmother Queen Mary, “We are never tired and we all love hospitals.”

Famous for the way she devoured the details of the daily red boxes focusing on the country’s governance, she was known to be extremely well-informed, prompting one visiting dignitary after the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire disaster to say, “If she had been a cabinet officer, you would have considered her unusually well­ briefed.”

Queen Elizabeth and her 15 Prime Ministers

Queen Elizabeth II was England’s window into history, having worked with an astonishing 15 British prime ministers while on the throne. She began her reign with Winston Churchill, 1951-1955, when she ascended the throne in 1952. Initially dismissed by the great statesman as “only a child,” who was partly right, taking on such enormous responsibility at such a young age (and not having been born into the role, like Prince Charles, since her uncle Edward VIII had abdicated, with the throne transferring over to Elizabeth’s father when she was only 10 years old). But her status grew in Churchill’s eyes within days, with the two of them developing a warm rapport over time, beautifully chronicled in the first season of The Crown, a series in its fifth year that halted production out of respect for the queen’s passing.

She briefly worked with Anthony Eden, 1955-1957, whose short career as PM ended with his resignation due to the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Harold Macmillan followed shortly and served much longer, 1957-1967, noting that the queen possessed the “heart and stomach of a man.” Alec Douglas-Home, another short-lived PM, didn’t last a year—363 days technically—and was known for his tough stance on trade unions, 1963-1964.

A greater relationship was had between Elizabeth and Harold Wilson, England’s first Labor PM, who served twice: 1964-1970 and again, 1974-1976. During the interim, Conservative leader Edward Health held the position from 1970-1974. Union trouble and economic recession plagued James Callaghan’s three years in office, 1976-1979.

Was there truth to the rumors of a riff between Elizabeth and Thatcher?

But perhaps Queen Elizabeth’s most famous prime minister relationship concerned Margaret Thatcher, 1979-1990, who managed to stay in the position the longest. The two supposedly had a frosty relationship, but whether or not that was only a rumor or maybe true on a personal level, there certainly was professional respect, to say the least.

Elizabeth’s gestures towards Thatcher remain the highest, with the female prime minister becoming only the second PM to receive the prestigious Order of Merit (the other was Winston Churchill), an award only given out at the queen’s discretion without input from her advisors and an extremely rare award (only 24 people can hold it at a time). And if there was any question about her level of admiration for the conservative politician, she also made her a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter, the highest order of Chivalry in England, and the first non-royal woman to receive it.

Long-serving prime ministers would follow, with two in particular who developed excellent working relationships with the monarch, including John Major, 1990-1997, who quipped, “One can say to the queen absolutely anything. Even thoughts you perhaps don’t want to share with your Cabinet.”

Major was followed by Tony Blair, as her 10th PM and the firstborn during the queen’s start on the job, who said the queen told him, “You are my 10th prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born,” upon their first meeting. Blair also persuaded the queen to show more genuine emotion after Princess Diana’s death, a fascinating dynamic illustrated brilliantly in the movie The Queen (also created by The Crown’s Peter Morgan). If you haven’t seen the film, it is highly recommended.

Gordon Brown fared less well in office, only lasting three years, 2007-2010, with a very young David Cameron, 2010-2016, whose youth was acutely reflected in the fact that he had attended with the queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, at Heatherdown.

The next two Prime Ministers grappled with Brexit difficulties, including the country’s second female in the role, Theresa May 2016-2019. Although Boris Johnson, 2019-2022, was proud to have “got Brexit done,” he was scandal-prone and heavily criticized for his mishandling of the pandemic. Both prime ministers ended in embarrassing resignations.

Conservative Liz Truss was the queen’s record 15th PM who she appointed while at Balmoral, just two days before her passing on Sept. 6.

“Earlier this week, at 96, she remained determined to carry out her duties as she appointed me as her 15th Prime Minister,” said the new PM, Liz Truss. “Throughout her life she has visited more than 100 countries and she has touched the lives of millions around the world.”

Truss also paid tribute to England’s longest reigning monarch, in a speech at 10 Downing following Queen Elizabeth’s death.

"“She ascended the throne just after the Second World War. She championed the development of the Commonwealth—from a small group of seven countries to a family of 56 nations spanning every continent of the world. We are now a modern, thriving, dynamic nation. Through thick and thin, Queen Elizabeth II provided us with the stability and the strength that we needed.“She was the very spirit of Great Britain—and that spirit will endure. She has been our longest-ever reigning monarch. It is an extraordinary achievement to have presided with such dignity and grace for 70 years.“Her life of service stretched beyond most of our living memories. In return, she was loved and admired by the people in the United Kingdom and all around the world. She has been a personal inspiration to me and to many Britons. Her devotion to duty is an example to us all.”"

In addition to her 15 prime ministers, Queen Elizabeth also met 13 U.S. Presidents—with an especially close relationship with Pres. Ronald Reagan—and including current Pres. Joseph Biden, who visited with her just last year.

I can’t help thinking that the passing of Queen Elizabeth is a goodbye to an era of civility, duty, stability, and graciousness. Whatever our time brings, we will never see another like her again. Queen Elizabeth II, may she rest in peace.

Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral is set for Sept. 19 at Westminster Abbey.