The news that the Queen had tested positive for Covid must have sent a shiver of dread down the spines of all but a tiny minority of hardhearted Republicans. Most of us don't want to even imagine a country bereft of the monarch who has been a seemingly immortal part of the fabric of the lives of all but the very old. Yet the brute fact of human mortality means that we will have to face a world without this indomitable 95-year-old woman at some point. How will we cope?
Under the Treason Act of 1351 it was a capital offence to 'imagine' the death of a reigning sovereign, but in our time whole departments of state have long not only 'imagined' our Queen's passing, but have planned for it down to the finest detail. Though the Queen has thus far managed to triumphantly defy both the bureaucrats in charge of her funeral arrangements and the Grim Reaper himself, she cannot – as much as we might wish her to – go on forever. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to ask what her demise will mean both for the institution of monarchy and for the individuals who will be left bereft in her wake.
In 1977 the poet Philip Larkin, asked to produce a verse to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee, wrote these lines:
'In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change'.
That admirably sums up what many of us feel about the Queen as a person: through seven decades, fourteen prime ministers, and unimaginable social, political and economic transformation she has remained: a rock of stability and a living incarnation of traditional values that, however unfashionable they now seem, still remain a benchmark of what we sneakily feel that we should – but rarely do – aspire to. Marital fidelity, firm religious faith, decent, dignified and decorous behaviour, public service, tireless devotion to duty, and – rarest, perhaps of all – the ability to keep our mouths shut. She is a symbol of the better angels of our imperfect natures.
In reality, of course, imperceptibly, and with glacial gradualness, the Queen actually has changed quite a lot. Long gone is the painfully cut glass upper crust accent of the girl who learned that she had come to the throne while up a tree in one of the countries that then still constituted her worldwide Empire. In 1957, a minor aristocrat, Lord Altrincham, wrote an article not only criticising the Queen's accent, but suggesting that her Court consisted of hidebound stuffed shirts totally out of touch with the fast changing society over which she reigned. Though Altrincham got his face slapped by an outraged monarchist, the Court did respond to his critique, albeit reluctantly and very slowly.
Out went outmoded customs like Debutante presentations, the refusal to receive divorcees at Court, and the appointment of only upper class white males to key official positions. The cruel decree that had prevented the Queen's own sister, Princess Margaret, from marrying a divorced war hero, Group Captain Peter Townsend, could not be sustained after Margaret herself – and three of the Queen's own four children – became divorcees themselves. As Society relaxed its rules, Her Majesty, too, loosened the rigid stays that had held her Court in a concrete waistcoat for far too long.
The Altrincham affair was but a minor breeze compared to the hurricane force storms of what the succeeding years held in store for the monarchy. The dream that became a nightmare of Prince Charles's unwise marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales; the frankly ludicrous union between Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson – surely a vindication of Karl Marx's dictum that History repeats itself as tragedy followed by farce – and finally the appalling sagas and scandals surrounding Princes Andrew and Harry.
When compared to other surviving European monarchies, the British institution attracts more global attention and prurient interest than, say, the Norwegian or Danish versions. It is a real life soap opera whose fallible stars, unremarkable and even dull in themselves, are as familiar to us to our own relatives, with the humdrum events of their lives – births, marriages, scandals, divorces and deaths – elevated to the status of dramas in our own. Only the Queen has escaped the taint of scandal, and managed to preserve the mysterious mystique: the 'magic' that the historian Walter Bagehot thought essential to the preservation of the monarchy.
Cumulatively, the disasters that engulfed the monarchy from the 1980s onwards represented the biggest threat to the Crown since the 1936 Abdication of the Queen's uncle King Edward VIII, but although they concerned the closest members of her family, none of them touched the Queen herself. Above the fray, Her Majesty sailed serenely and almost silently on. In her seventy year reign, and in stark contrast to her late husband and children, the Queen has rarely if ever dropped a clanger or made an indiscreet remark – at least in public – nor put a dainty diplomatic foot wrong. When we consider the controversies that have surrounded her, this is an astonishing achievement.
There have been occasional missteps to be sure: sending her Heir to a Spartan Scottish school entirely unsuited to his personality being one; and the delay in responding to the public's anguished grief at Diana's death being another. Generally speaking, however, the Queen has cemented the loyalty of her subjects into real affection. I don't think that it is possible to exaggerate the sense of shock and loss that we will feel when she goes. It will be akin to losing a beloved grandmother, leaving a treasured home, and parting with a much respected friend all in one. We will feel like ships lost in fog without the bearings that have kept us more or less on course all our lives.
The passing of long-serving monarchs – and the Queen has reigned longer than any other in European history apart from the 17th and 18th century 'Sun King' Louis XIV – has traditionally been seen as the end of an era. In English history, perhaps the closest examples are the death of the Queen's namesake Elizabeth I and her great-great grandmother Victoria. The one ended the troubled but glorious Tudor dynasty, and ushered in the less than successful Stuarts. The other signalled the close of Britain's century as the world's leading superpower. Will the Queen passing the baton to her now elderly son mark a similar watershed?
The immediate omens do not look too promising. Though Prince Charles has signalled his intention of slimming down the Monarchy to a Scandinavian-style core, and sidelining it's more embarrassing members, he doesn't seem to have inherited his mother's ability to keep the institution clear of political controversy. Though his own Heir Prince William and his wife appear to be both sensible and popular, the capacity of Charles and the rest of the Royals to commit ill-advised and frankly idiotic blunders may bring the whole ramshackle and often absurd edifice crashing down sooner than we can now imagine. God save the Queen!