A relentless sense that we are hurtling through history is one of the privileges and burdens of the modern age. Yet, with the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth, we experienced something truly extraordinary. A spectacle of such glory has not been witnessed in the UK since at least the late Queen’s coronation in 1953.
But Her Majesty’s send-off was also an unprecedented global communion. Five hundred heads of state and other foreign dignitaries came to the UK. Billions of people around the world, from Japan to Jamaica, are estimated to have watched the events – live-streamed in everything from converted cinemas to British-themed tea shops. The crowds 50 deep that lined the procession route whooped, threw red roses and snapped pictures of the cortege on their phones.
For one last time, Queen Elizabeth left the world in awe. The weather was poetic – a crisp and luminous September day that sat on the threshold between summer and autumn. The mood was sombre but resolute. The mind-boggling logistics were pulled off with military precision.
A world leader in death, as well as life, the spiritual message was one of hope that will carry global significance. The hymns included My Soul, There is a Country, based on words by Henry Vaughan, a 17th-century poet, who found solace in Jesus Christ and the metaphysical beauty of the Welsh landscape amid the darkness of the English Civil War.
It was a powerful reminder that our monarch drew strength from her own “One who is permanent” – and that, for her, was God. Justin Welby ended his sermon fittingly with the affirmation: “Service in life, hope in death.” Such a message could only have been reassuring to the late Queen’s many admirers around the world who worry that the extinguishing of her light somehow augurs a new age of uncertainty and darkness.
In a way, however, everything has changed, and nothing has. On the late Queen’s coronation almost 70 years ago, the country didn’t know whether to expect a new Elizabethan Age brimming with dynamism or to steel itself for national decline. In the end, the people settled for feeling “very proud of it all, and the fact that we put on a show rather well”.
Today, the country can feel pride once again in its ability to execute a momentous royal event. But more than that, our country has, in its own way, shown itself to be a model for the world to follow. Read the copious foreign press reports, and it’s clear that other nations have detected in Britain something that they admire and wish they could emulate. Not necessarily the pomp and pageantry of ancient institutions and custom; rather, an elegant confidence and a quiet resilience that can only come from finding a balance between modernity and tradition.
True, monarchies are in decline across the world, with 7.6 per cent of the global population living under such institutions compared with more than a third in the 1950s. Global attitudes to Britain are undoubtedly nuanced. A world impressed by the splendour of ceremony has also been tersely discussing our country’s colonial legacy. Still, with a few dishonourable exceptions, the death of Queen Elizabeth has been an unprecedented global unifier. Both friends and enemies have looked to Britain with a yearning for something they lack.
Consider the United States. If the country’s media outlets are any guide, the world’s avatar of modernity is fascinated not simply by the fact that we are in touch with our traditions, but that we are one step beyond that – a nation living in history. They have marvelled at the fact that people were happy to queue for hours to see the Queen as she lay in state. They have goggled at the public’s profound and instinctive connection to the past, as well the historic present.
Americans in contrast can lack an emotional relationship with history. As a future-oriented nation since its foundation, the country is propelled by a drive towards the American Dream. And yet faced with fears of its own decline and pressure to address its own historical sins, attitudes are changing. As a Wall Street Journal columnist put it, Americans have found in Britain reassurance that “it’s not bad to tell the story, to put it out there for the world to see … Respect the past and respect your own memory”.
One wonders whether some in China are having a similar epiphany. Media outlets that tend to dismiss Britain as a faded empire have expressed a wistful admiration for the late Queen as the embodiment of duty and dignity, a force that “never changed”. In a country that is steadily starting to question its own mania for modernity, this is perhaps unsurprising. A small but influential school of Chinese thinkers increasingly despairs at the price their country must pay for its relentless quest for progress – rootlessness, boredom and “extinction of any appreciation for the divine”. It has speculated about whether China made a catastrophic error in the 20th century by seeking to emulate the French revolutionary model rather than the English reformist one.
In France itself – where there has been wall-to-wall coverage – there are similar traces of regret. Take the celebrity academic, Christian Monjou, who suggested that France grieves not just for the Queen but for a continuity that its own presidential system lacks, due to the “brutal hyphenation” in its history, the French Revolution.
Even former colonies have shown a deep, complex admiration for the Queen. Nigerians have in recent days proved particularly captivated with her legacy. In her they saw a leader who embodied the middle class values of the day and yet charmed the world “in the original African sense of holding people spellpound”.
Perversely, even our enemies see something in Britain that they have lost. Russians seem to have felt genuinely wounded at their leaders being barred from the funeral, to the point that they condemned it as “blasphemy”. Strange as it might sound, many see in the British Royal family the miraculous preservation of mystical values that they believe have been trampled elsewhere in the West over the years. The Russian press has marvelled at the divine “secret” to monarchical power and the late Queen’s ability to make the Royal family more open “without destroying the veil of mystery”.
In short, almost every country is tortured by the same question: how to reconcile tradition and modernity. And in Britain, many can see the tantalising glimmers of an answer.
This is not a perfect country. But we can be proud that, in the late Queen, we were blessed with something that eludes much of the rest of the world – a rock, a lodestar, an unchanging logos in an ever-changing world. May she rest in peace.