There was literally no one like her.
Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, was the head of state of 15 realms, and head of a Commonwealth of 56 nations whose successive leaders regarded her with singular respect. She was raised at the knee of people to whom Queen Victoria was Granny, married to the grandnephew of the last two Russian tsars, and the sovereign of 15 British prime ministers starting with Winston Churchill. The final survivor of an age that is gone, one can only stand in awe of the sheer historical sweep of her life.
Her heritage did not always serve her perfectly. In an egalitarian world her inherited rank struck more than a few as anachronistic. And the standards of comportment she learned from her earliest days were sometimes ill-suited to an age when stalwart rectitude became less admired. Yet insiders attested to her warmth and humour, most recently observed in a wry exchange with an animated bear about the actual contents of her infamous purse.
And almost everyone – even reluctant Labour prime ministers – came to admire her commitment to duty and a life of service, and the grace and dignity with which she discharged those duties. At 21 she vowed her life to the service of her people, and she remained true to that vow for 75 years, tirelessly doing what her governments asked of her even if she privately winced. It is no small thing to serve decades of public life with nary a slip of the tongue.
Most of us observed the discharge of the Queen’s duties in ceremonial terms, from state banquets to ribbon cuttings to attending less than mesmerizing public entertainments. Perhaps less conspicuous was her critical constitutional role and the significant contribution this hereditary sovereign made to democracy.
As a constitutional monarch the Queen was often described as a figurehead, someone who rubber stamped the decisions of others. But this misses the rich texture of the role Elizabeth II played in her nation’s government, a role attested to in academic studies like Lord Hennessy’s The Hidden Wiring and the discreet but telling recollections of successive prime ministers, who knew they could confide in her and benefit from her singular experience without the slightest fear of indiscretion. Never once did Elizabeth II fail to do what the constitution, written or unwritten, asked of her. And to her people she was a focal point for their love of their country and its traditions.
Part of the genius of the Westminster system is its separation of formal state authority from the day-to-day decision making of government. The monarchy is a key element of that system, providing continuity and gravitas to the state and its institutions – a continuity now on full display as Britain observes the seamless transition of both prime minister and monarch within just a few days. In her person the Queen bore ten centuries of state authority and, through her own awareness of her institutional role, compelled prime ministers to recognize that they were not heads of state but simply ministers of the Crown. Of course she could never precisely replicate that role in Canada, where most of her duties were discharged by Governors General, but the same constitutional structure prevails here, and most of our prime ministers have attested to their high regard for her as a public servant and Canada’s head of state.
The Queen was also head of the Church of England, a responsibility that, like all her responsibilities, she evidently took very much to heart. Her faith was important to her and seems to have anchored her choices in life. And so it is perhaps all the more fitting that we say, for the last time for at least three generations, God save the Queen.