LONDON—This is part of what a 91-year-old woman did for a day job in the last week: She rushed to comfort people who were hurting after their homes were lost in a catastrophic fire at the Grenfell Tower and spent 45 minutes talking to them, sometimes coming close to tears; she spent two hours reviewing an immaculate military ceremony saluting her birthday and then decreed a minute’s silence in the honor of the fire victims; she rode in an open carriage on one of the hottest days on record in a glamorous ritual marking the opening of one of her favorite sporting events; she read a fatuous speech that she had nothing to do with composing to open the oldest parliament in the world.
She did all that and for every other minute of her life she still had to behave as was expected of her, as the queen of the United Kingdom.
There is a distinct feeling here that as virtually every other institution in the country is staggering through a fog of irresolute leadership only one is still working as it should even though it is supposed to be purely symbolic and absent of power: the monarchy.
That this should be so is due entirely to the person at the head of it who, in spite of her venerable age, is giving daily lessons in the art of leadership and selfless duty.
Bear in mind that at the same time the behavior of the country’s political leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, provoked this op-ed comment from the London Evening Standard: “Every day she remains in charge is a wasted day. Mrs. May’s flat-footed response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was not just further proof that she’s not good at politics. It was another moment of not rising to the occasion as a leader with vision would do.”
I have friends and family here who for many years have been diehard republicans. Their views on the Windsors have usually taken one of two courses—either that they are “a gang of louche parasites” or the more charitable “maybe they are worth enduring as the nation’s best tourist attraction.”
Now I find that these same people would not be caught dead saying anything as cynical or harsh as that about the queen. To them she seems to have detached herself from the royal family and entered a special state of grace in which she inspires awe: “How on earth does she do all this stuff so well when all around her is a shambles?”
Take the Grenfell Tower example, this horrific inferno that overnight turned into a blackened tomb for numbers still unknown.
The prime minister arrived the day afterward surrounded by her usual phalanx of security minders, convoy of black vehicles and police escort. She met a small group of firefighters and first responders in an encounter that was barely glimpsed by cameras and then she left without seeking any contact with survivors and the kin of victims.
A day later the queen arrived at an improvised help center in her usual stately limousine, accompanied by her grandson, William the Duke of Cambridge.
Whoever manages the space around the queen as she moves among her people understands the importance of keeping all the minders well out of shot—look hard and you can catch a glimpse or two of a discreet bodyguard but there is no encircling wall of men with bulging jackets.
It’s fascinating to think of what goes on before the queen actually arrives in a situation like this. She alone decides that she must go to this scene of great distress. Unlike the prime minister, she chooses not to dress like an undertaker. No, she picks through her extensive wardrobe of bright pastel colors and chooses what might be called an electric version of royal blue, with a matching hat.
At the help center, with William a deferential pace or two behind her, she immediately disarms her subjects. They gather in small clusters as she invites them to tell their stories. They are as diverse as the city they have chosen as home, from Asia, from the Middle East, from Africa, from the Caribbean. Suddenly they find themselves talking to somebody who must until this moment have seemed more remote to them than even the bureaucracies whose neglect and indifference played a fatal role in their lives—perhaps remote in a way that went beyond anything familiar to an unreachable height of legend.
As they talk, she is a model of self control. Some of the stories are of moments in which life or death decisions have been made—the split second choice to ignore the official instructions to “stay in place” and fight through flame and smoke to escape. Other stories are of those, some of them family to the teller, who obeyed the orders and remained. And are lost.
Looking at this, I am reminded of the queen’s mother, the feisty companion of George VI who, at the height of the Blitz, stepped carefully over the rubble of blasted streets in East London with the shells of houses still smoldering from the hell of the previous night, and also listened to stories of lives lost and saved, and who at that terrible time transformed the perception of what the monarchy could do.
The queen, I believe, has a lot of her mother’s spirit. The conventional biographies tend to ascribe much of her character to the influence of her father, who conveyed to her from an early age his own sense of public duty. That may well be true, but her mother outlived her father for many years and undoubtedly she became an influence on the queen as the institution was forced to strive to remain relevant to an extent unimaginable in the war.
There were serious missteps on the way, as when the queen seemed to be a distant and cold fish after the death of Princess Diana. The family is large and at times dysfunctional. The queen’s role sometimes seems conflicted, between archaic ceremony and natural spontaneity. The last seven days have concentrated the contradictions in a way seldom seen.
First, the queen paid that visit to the Grenfell Tower survivors, and then, the very next day, she had to preside over a classic 18th century tableau of precision military drill, Trooping the Color, that is also the official marking of her birthday (even though her actual birthday is in April). This was flawlessly executed under a scorching sun on Horse Guards Parade. Nonetheless the queen made sure that it was not an empty ritual by ordering the minute of silence and then saying, in a short speech that embraced both the tower disaster and two terrorist attacks, “It is difficult to escape a very somber national mood. In recent months the country has witnessed a succession of terrible tragedies.”
A few days later she took her part in another spectacular tableau of the English summer, Ascot opening day—an unrestrained parade of high society and privilege forever memorialized in the movie My Fair Lady and still, today, looking like it was choreographed by Cecil Beaton, the men appearing as stuffed shirts with top hats and the women in bizarre hats.
There was some talk of relaxing the dress code because of the heat, but it never happened. The queen loves the event. She has been attending it every year for 64 years. It attracts the elite of the sport she adores, horse racing. It is, however, no longer just the sport of kings but of sheikhs. The big winner on opening day was Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates who has sunk many millions into a stable that includes no fewer than 700 thoroughbreds around the world.
The queen wore another of her electric colors, this time lime green with matching hat, and once more dictated that before the sport began there should be a minute of silence. Prince Phillip, in the full gear of top hat and morning suit, rode with the queen to the royal enclosure in the open carriage—appearing as he had done at the Trooping the Color impervious to the oppressive heat. It was within hours of this that he was hospitalized.
Ascot should have been preceded by the state opening of Parliament at which by custom the queen appears as ventriloquist. She delivers a speech crafted by the government outlining its future actions. This time the speech was delayed by two days while the politicians squabbled over the text. This is a hung parliament, with Theresa May’s Tories without an overall majority or, as the speech revealed, without any coherent plan to deal with mess that is Brexit. The queen wore a hat that some (dubiously) interpreted as a version of the European Union flag and after the speech she sped back to Ascot.
For those for whom the royals are show business this week could have simply evoked the empty platitude “the show must go on.” For sure, the full supporting cast—Will and Kate together with their kids George and Charlotte, Prince Harry, Prince Charles and Camilla—performed their public roles as required. (Harry said this week that being a king or queen is a job that nobody in their right minds would want, which says more about his own preferences than it does about those of his brother or grandmother.)
And normally that might be good enough to justify their continued existence.
But the queen has displayed an instinct that goes beyond obligatory rituals. She clearly understands leadership as a public duty in a way that comes naturally to her at a time when it doesn’t seem to come naturally to anybody else in her country. In unusually explicit language—“a very somber national mood”—she has been messaging her people and getting out ahead of anything her government seems able to manage in terms of empathy.
Writing in The Guardian Matthew d’Ancona said, “There is a gulf between on the one hand, political miscalculation and a bad campaign, and on the other, a national tragedy that captures with ghastly clarity a much broader sense of national grief, social division and unheeded anger.”
It is extraordinary that given the insistent evidence of that national condition it is the queen who, holding very little if any actual power, has displayed a higher moral sensibility than any of those who seek power on the greasy pole. Of course, she has acquired a degree of power simply through her presence and by being there for so long.
Yet after 64 years on the throne there is a question that defies an answer: who is the queen?
In all the ways that we normally expect to claim to know a public person she remains unknown and probably unknowable. Part of her ingrained vocational skill has been to understand the importance of being an enigma, especially a regal enigma, lofty and above indecent inquiry—which primarily means any hint of what her political views on any subject might be. But the mask remains in place on such trivial but compelling details as what makes her… laugh, angry, unhappy, naughty, cantankerous, repentant, stimulating?
Fictional biography creates an illusion that these human traits are, in fact, known and documented. Probably nothing has done more to strip away the mask than the Netflix series The Crown. Claire Foy, with Peter Morgan’s script, did such an incredible impersonation that it’s easy to think that a cleverly mimicked voice—the kind of carefully middlebrow voice that an English school teacher might develop to escape social alignment that is either too low or too high—is real with real emotions and real will.
It was good drama but there is absolutely no evidence that it was good biography. If Morgan’s version came to any conclusion about character it was that the queen was, unsurprisingly, socially conservative, not well enough educated to develop a lively and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity but surprisingly assertive when those around her made the mistake of believing that they knew her mind and could speak for her.
If what could be called The Crown Effect did really influence how the queen is now perceived it is because the series has introduced us to the least known part of her life, the apprenticeship. As a rule, more dramatic license is permissible the further away the story gets from the familiar. This was a very sympathetic view of a young monarch dealing with an uncomfortable mentor in the art of statesmanship—Winston Churchill, a lion passing reluctantly into winter who has to be finally admonished for overstepping his authority.
Today it seems to be the kingdom itself that is passing reluctantly into the winter of its power, needlessly enfeebled by a wretched political class, while the monarch alone stands clearly above them with her people.