This is an extraordinary moment: a nation changing before our eyes. For all the sense that we knew that this day would come, the death of the Queen is nonetheless a momentous occasion. As I wrote in my blog for the Platinum jubilee in June, she has been a stable fixture for all of our lives. Only those who are in their late seventies or older will remember another royal succession – and their memories are the faint memories of distant childhood, when everything in the adult world seems remote. And now, in this period of national mourning between the announcement of her death last Thursday and the state funeral next Monday, we will all have our own opportunities to grieve and to reflect, to think about what Elizabeth II’s reign meant for us, for the nation and the world, and what might come next.
This is an extraordinary moment. In the conversations and communications I have had across the University since the Queen’s death on 8th September, I’ve been struck by just how widespread and how personal the responses have been: from our older and our younger staff, from local and from international students. I’ve asked myself why this is. Perhaps it is a consequence of Her Majesty’s longevity. Politicians, media stars and so on all come and go, but the Queen was a symbol of stability, unity and continuity. In all that, it was part of the mystique that she seemed able to speak to all. Herself reportedly shy and a little reserved, she knew how to reach out when it was necessary – at moments of national trauma or celebration. Few will forget her participation in the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2012 alongside James Bond, a sequence which appeared to see the then eighty-four-year-old monarch parachuting into the arena. And there was a comment on social media just a few days ago, referencing a Platinum jubilee tea-party video, in which a five-year-old had said to her parent ‘but at least she got to meet Paddington Bear’. The nature of monarchy is that it rests on a series of pillars – tradition, ceremony, appearance – and Elizabeth II had an almost instinctive grasp of how they mattered.
This is an extraordinary moment. I wrote in June about just how much the nation had changed over the course of her reign. She acceded to the throne when the United Kingdom and its allies had triumphed in a global war, but at enormous human and economic cost. The scars of the Second World War, and many of the privations, were still all readily apparent. As a young girl, she had driven trucks during that war, so her loss breaks the last public link with a key moment in our history, a moment so powerful in shaping our sense of ourselves as a nation. The scale, speed and implications of the transformations that followed her accession were unprecedented. Her reign saw a speedy withdrawal from what in 1952 was still a huge empire, waves of migration which produced a more open and diverse society, the transformation of cultural attitudes to family, sex and sexuality, the engagement with, and finally withdrawal from, Europe, the destruction of extractive and manufacturing industries which had employed the majority of people when she came to the throne, the growing realisation of the destruction of the natural world and its consequences. The list could – of course – go on. But to remain a point of stability, and to gain respect and affection through all that requires something more than tradition and a reliance on ceremony and appearance. It requires shrewd judgement and exceptional commitment, a commitment displayed not just through weekly meetings with Prime Ministers and formal state occasions, but also through endless, often low-key royal visits to community groups: in her ninetieth year, the Queen undertook almost three hundred public engagements. She had visited Sheffield Hallam in 1994 to open the then new city campus atrium.
This is an extraordinary moment. We have become a more divided and fractious society, with increasingly sharp disagreements not just about politics and policy but about fundamental values and assumptions. With her passing, it has become yet more clear that she commanded the respect of both monarchists and republicans: for as long as the monarchy was represented by this apparently shy, reserved, endlessly hard-working and devoted Queen, these fractious divisions by-passed the monarchy. The outpouring of grief is not, I think, superficial or manufactured. At a fundamental level, there is a realisation that something profound has happened. And that is not wrong. Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne for fully a fifth of the entire time that the nation has been a constitutional monarchy. One of the lessons of the last few days has been that whilst power and politics may have moved from the monarchy to Parliament, ethos is still shaped by the monarch. And so, in this period of national mourning, we will all be reflecting in our different ways on what we have lost.