The passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II has affected me more than I would have expected. Though I am a monarchist – and indeed a Loyalist, for whatever that’s worth – I never really followed ‘Royal Family gossip’. It was simply there, a fact about the world, one of the most prominent remaining vestiges of monarchical society, but not something I paid especial attention to — until now.
As such, I’m not the one to give a recap of her long reign – the longest of any British monarch, even topping her ancestor Victoria’s storied reign – or pay tribute to her celebrated personality. There are many people around the world who have done and will be doing that. For my own part, I knew enough to say, on hearing the news, “so passes one of the last adults from the world stage.”
The Personal Nature of a Monarchy
The death of a monarch is a very different thing from, say, the death of a president (as British people have been trying to remind American commentators). A president is a hired manager, standing to the American people after the pattern of a CEO to his employees. It’s an essentially impersonal relationship, except insofar as the man himself chooses to make it personal. Besides which, presidents come and go, and very few stand apart from the office they hold.
A queen, though, is a personal relation. She’s more like the national mother, or grandmother, just as a king is the national father. The death of your CEO may be personally affecting, depending on your view of him, but it can’t compare to the death of a parent.
The closest thing we’ve come to experiencing something like this is, for Catholics, the death of the Pope. But even then, a Pope stands in different relation to the people than a king or queen. He’s the Holy Father; the high priest. His is a mission to which he is called at a particular stage of his life, not one to which he is formed from birth by virtue of his relationship to his people.
As the British conservative commentary channel Podcast of the Lotus Eaters put it, what we are witnessing here is the difference between a traditional society and a ‘social contract’ society. A traditional society is personal; an extension of the family. It is something that simply exists, that grew up organically over time, not something that was built to order. Just as one would have trouble explaining the profound connection between a father and mother and their children, and just why this connection leaves such a mark on people even in cases of estrangement, abandonment, and abuse, so it is difficult to explain the link between a monarch and her people, and why this remains a beautiful thing despite the actions of bad kings and queens (though these usually are not the ones that actually get dethroned, but that’s another story).
“Very well,” you may say, “but after all, she wasn’t our Queen. We’re Americans; we don’t have a monarch. So why should you feel it so?”
Therein are two threads, which together lead to what seems to me a very painful conclusion.
The first is, no, we don’t have a monarch. We live under a ‘social contract’ society, theoretically formed by some common agreement for mutual benefit, which was dreamed up by a specific set of men at a certain point in history and left upon us, their inheritors. Mutual self-interest is the order of the day, and our leaders stand in theoretical equality to ourselves, while enjoying ten times the power and not a fraction of the responsibility of the English monarchy. They are the hired guardians and foster parents indifferently administering a level of care to us. Sometimes they give very good care, as far as it goes. On rare occasions they genuinely strive to be true leaders to us, like ‘big brothers’ striving to fill the lack in their charges’ lives. Such cases are causes for gratitude. But they aren’t the same.
It was when I was watching footage of the crowd outside of Buckingham Palace singing God Save the King, and when they reached the line ‘long to reign over us’, that the lack really hit me. The British have this relationship that makes them an ‘us’. They have a personal keystone to their national identity, someone they can look to, however distantly, to say “this person is responsible for us, not because anyone voted them into office, but simply because of who we are and who they are.”
A Nation of Orphans
Most kings and queens are thoroughly mediocre people, just as most parents are thoroughly mediocre. But it still makes all the difference in the world to actually have one.
Americans don’t have that. We are orphans.
And I think we feel that more than we let on. You can see it in our obsessive celebrity culture, in our intense attachment to certain Presidents or national figures – e.g. FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, and more recently, Obama for the left, Trump for the right – and even in our perennial fascination with the British monarchy and aristocracy itself.
It’s painful to be an orphan. But there is another element to this all that makes it even more difficult: something I think we’re even less willing to admit.
Noah Webster saw it all the way back in the very earliest days of our country, even before the Constitution. He urged that American students shouldn’t read British classics, or learn British history, or study British law, because to do so would be to remain culturally British, if not politically. He was quite right in his perception; his error was thinking there was anything that could or ought to be done about it.
The fact is that America is an English nation, an offshoot of British culture (or at least a particular facet of British culture: specifics would take us too far afield). We came from England, as a nation, and we still read the same books and most of the same history and thus inculcate the same values (just as one example among many, the opening chapters of The Education of Henry Adams lists the books that that heir of two presidents read as a child: every single one is by a British author).
This isn’t to discredit or delegitimize American culture, of course; we are gloriously ourselves as much as anyone else. But part of that is that we are our mother’s son. Great Britain is our sire, and nothing can change that. We may be politically distinct from the Commonwealth, but we remain culturally one with them.
That is why this feels even more odd to me. We threw off the British monarchy and have no official ties to it any longer. Yet we are so close to our mother country in so many ways that I, at least, can’t help feeling almost as if we are included in this loss.
Almost … but not quite. We are like the estranged child showing up to mother’s funeral, torn between expressing our real grief and maintaining our self-imposed aloofness. We arrive, find our siblings all gathered together … and we are shown to the visitor’s section. Respectfully, and with thanks for coming, but definitely excluded from the rest of the family.
It makes that sense of orphanhood sting all the more.
Perhaps I’m alone in feeling so. Maybe it’s the result of my own particular perspective. But I still believe it’s a more common sentiment than many would think or admit to.
In any case, may her majesty rest in peace, and God Save the King.