For those of us in our 50s and 60s – Queen Elizabeth the Second has been a constant presence throughout our lives. I’m no great monarchist but this familiar figure bowing out is a very unsettling moment. It reminds us of losing those close to us in recent years – including both my parents. We’ve essentially watched the Queen going through the same health travails as she relinquishes her grasp on life.
As a pupil at an infants and then junior school in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Queen was omnipresent. She’d already been on the throne for two decades by the start of the 70s. And her status as the head of state sitting at the pinnacle of the social order was beyond question.
The coins and notes we got as pocket money bore her young head with a laureate crown and after 1971 – when our currency went decimal – an updated image appeared as she advanced into her 40s. There were still coins with the heads of her father and grandfather – George VI and George V – in circulation, but they seemed very remote figures.
In the school assembly hall, we faced the 1955 portrait of the Queen painted by Pietro Annigoni with the monarch draped in the ceremonial robes of the Order of the Garter and a strangely desolate landscape behind her. While the Queen gazed serenely down, we sung our morning hymns and intoned the Our Father to the head of the Church of England. Deference was still a big thing in the 1970s.
Queen Elizabeth meets punk rock
The late 1970s saw both a surge in monarchism and the first outburst of counter-cultural opposition. In 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the nation was enjoined to organise street parties and other events. Whereas subsequent jubilees – Golden, Diamond, and Platinum – seemed to be over in a fortnight, the 1977 jubilee went on for months. And it was very much a Commonwealth wide affair with the Queen touring Australia and New Zealand while Prince Charles visited Canada.
But a year before, punk rock had exploded into our lives. It’s hard to explain now what an impact The Sex Pistols and that whole musical genre had on our generation in a country that was sagging under the weight of economic crisis, post-Empire malaise, and rising unemployment. The Pistols released the raucous and irreverent single God Save The Queen which looking back now was less an attack on the Queen as a person and more a rejection of deference and suffocating paternalism.
But there was no wave of Republicanism crashing through the land. As a political activist in the 1980s, I was opposed to the monarchy but the main target of my socialist ire was capitalism. The Queen was simply the ceremonial icing on a cake of class oppression. I moved on from radical activism but just in time for the Queen to experience what she termed an “annus horribilis” in her Ruby Jubilee year of 1992.
Queen Elizabeth and her terrible year
That jubilee was noticeably low-profile. We were in the throes of endless scandal and rumour surrounding Sarah, Duchess of York – better known as “Fergie” – and of course Diana, Princess of Wales. Divorce, separation, racy photos, and compromising recording of secret conversations gave the tabloids a field day with the Royal Family. And then a big chunk of Windsor Castle burned down.
Compared to the 1970s, the monarchy in the 1980s and 1990s slid from revered institution to soap opera. Culminating in the death of Princess Diana in Paris. This event was an eye opener for me as somebody who wasn’t an arch-monarchist, along with most of my friends. It revealed a large and hyper-emotional constituency of royal admirers whose grief went far beyond anything most people I knew were experiencing. And the target of their anger over Diana’s demise was the Queen.
Shrill and shouty demands came for Her Majesty to show her feelings more publicly. I’ll admit that for the first time in my life, I actually felt genuine sympathy for the Queen. She was essentially being harangued into displaying the correct feelings by a tranche of the population in thrall to therapists. And she buckled, giving a televised address to mollify the population.
A kinder century for Queen Elizabeth
The 21st century has seen the Queen’s stature rise as the public view of democratically elected politicians and other professions has nosedived. But as ever, there’s a contradictory trend. Younger people – if social attitudes surveys are to be believed – just don’t feel the affinity to the monarchy that’s still widespread in my generation.
In addition, the discourse about the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and empire has fuelled a growing hostility in the Commonwealth. The last anachronistic ties binding former colonies to Britain are unwinding rapidly. It’s become the conventional wisdom to state that after Queen Elizabeth – the remnants of empire will evaporate. She is, after all, the last link to the Empire.
So, it’s been a journey that millions feel they’ve been on. Queen Elizabeth evolved into the nation’s collective mother figure – even though she has remained throughout a remote and even slightly ethereal figure. This constant in our lives is now disappearing. How our view of the monarchy will change is a big question.