For us in Britain, this has been a profoundly moving day. Most Britons have never known life without Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state, and the sudden decline of the monarch, only two days after she appointed our new Prime Minister at Balmoral, has come as a shock. Everyone accepted that, at 96, she was coming to the end of her life. But her mother lived to be 101, and we all assumed that Queen Elizabeth would carry on just as long.
While this news is not standard fare for a photography blog, I feel that it needs to be acknowledged, and I hope those of you who live in other countries outside Britain and the Commonwealth will excuse a few words in recognition of our greatest monarch, our longest-lived monarch and the longest-reigning monarch in over 1,000 years.
There is no doubt that throughout her reign Queen Elizabeth II has worked unfailingly in the best interest of our country and the Commonwealth. Since she acceded to the throne in 1952, she has been the rock for our people throughout many trials and more than a few tribulations. Yet there are some committed republicans who believe we should do away with the outdated concept of royalty and move to a politically based presidential system. I disagree.
Whatever the failings of the current system, however unfair and antiquated it may seem in the 21st Century, Queen Elizabeth has repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of a constitutional, non-political monarchy. She has been someone behind whom most people in Britain and the Commonwealth could unite, and she has never once expressed any partisan views. That is the secret of her success; she has been someone to whom Britons of any mainstream political persuasion could relate personally.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, most people in this country have never known life without Queen Elizabeth as head of state.
I am not one of them, for I clearly remember her father, King George VI; I remember the national anthem as God Save the King, not God Save the Queen as it has been known for the past 70 years. I remember the moment I heard of the death of King George as though it were yesterday.
I was sitting at my desk in junior school on the morning of 6 February 1952. The headmaster opened the door around 11 am and said he had a sad announcement to make: “His Majesty The King died this morning. You may all go home now”. I may have been young, but I recognised this as a defining moment. I ran all the way home, the bearer of momentous tidings when news travelled much more slowly than it does today.
In June the following year, I was seated at a long trestle table in the middle of our street, celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I watched the ceremony on a 9-in Pye television equipped with a goldfish-bowl magnifying lens to add a little more majesty to the occasion. It was a period of profound change, just a few years after the end of the war.
But the promised new Elizabethan age, sealed in the same year by Sir Edmund Hilary’s conquest of Everest, turned out to be more than just a promise. Elizabeth II is more than likely the greatest monarch in our history, outshining even Queen Victoria as the monarch of an age of great change and progress.
Here in Britain, we have a state funeral to face and the certainty of a coronation service next year. It is heartening that the reins of soft power — because, in reality, the monarch has no real power — pass so smoothly from mother to son. As we have all seen in countless dramas over the years, the formula, “The Queen is dead. Long live The King”, will have been voiced before the announcement of The Queen’s death to the world.
There will be many small changes, too. The currency, the stamps and countless other symbols will be changed. The new royal cypher, CIIIR, will replace EIIR throughout the land, although sensibly only when renewal becomes necessary. Many post boxes still bear the cypher VR after 121 years. Barristers will wake up tomorrow to find they are now KCs and not QCs.
Our new king, Charles III, has had more than his fair share of controversy in his long period in the waiting room — even longer than Victoria’s son, who became Edward VII and who had led a very colourful life. But I feel sure he and The Queen Consort will carry on the traditions of Queen Elizabeth II and provide a focus for a country that, in common with most western nations, is going through a period of great change and uncertainty.
I know that readers will join me in paying a tribute to the memory of our late Queen.