So far, the period of mourning for the late Queen has gone almost entirely to the plans developed over so many years, but with one exception: the reaction. It’s of a scale not quite envisaged, not just the queues but the acceptances for Monday’s funeral. Joe Biden’s surprise attendance has raised difficult questions. He will bring his own cars, police and outriders but if he’s allowed this luxury, then how can Britain deny it to the (many) other world leaders attending? To an extent that was not quite anticipated, this is not just a British event – or even a Commonwealth one – but a global one.
A day of remembrance for the Queen was held in India, a country whose populist politicians regularly attack British imperialism. Even Brazil and Lebanon held official days of mourning. The 10-hour queues for the lying-in-state in Westminster have been reflected in Hong Kong’s queues to sign the book of condolence. Polls show almost half of Canadians intend to watch the funeral. When it starts, the world will pause. More than four billion viewers have been predicted, which would make it the most-watched event in human history.
All of this is, in and of itself, quite something. When a revered world leader dies, there is always mourning – but never on such a scale. A record-breaking 4.8 million people followed the flight that brought the Queen’s coffin from Edinburgh, a figure that was quite well reported. But one aspect of this wasn’t made public: almost half of the interest was from overseas, mainly America and Germany. In various ways the magic of monarchy, which has been on such vivid display, can be seen at work all over the world.
On the evening that she died, I walked to Buckingham Palace to watch people gather. Part of this, of course, is simple tourism: Americans who happen to be in London and who, quite naturally, want to take part in history. Crowds attract crowds. But there were others. I met a Polish couple who delayed their flight home to lay flowers. He’d worked here for a few years and had come out of respect for the welcome he was shown in Britain. Even to them, the notion of Queen and country were inseparable.
In the interviews with those in the five-mile queue for Westminster Hall, we’ve heard Ghanaians, Kenyans, Indonesians, Italians: some holidaying here, others having travelled for the occasion. Which, logically, sounds daft. Why grieve for another country’s monarch? It was Emmanuel Macron who explained it best. “To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was the Queen.”
This is the point. Amid its absurd series of articles attacking the monarchy, The New York Times also reported on the mood at home by asking: “Was Elizabeth the Queen of America? This week it seemed like it.” Quite.
This was true in her life, as well as in her death. Nothing in the modern British diplomatic toolkit has a fraction of the potency of the monarchy. When Reagan eventually backed Thatcher over the Falklands, the prospect of riding with the Queen in Windsor Great Park was part of the package of sweeteners deployed. When David Cameron was trying everything to persuade Angela Merkel to back his attempt to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, British diplomats in Berlin were asking what she wanted most. The answer came back: what she would like, above all else, was a cup of tea with the Queen.
An offer of an audience with her, or any member of the Royal family, held more allure for world leaders than all of the other potential inducements put together. So it’s not just Polish plumbers and American backpackers who are drawn to the Crown, going out of their way to be physically present to royalty. The world’s most powerful, most outspoken people were willing to do almost anything to meet this silent woman who held no power at all.
The “Queen of America”. “The Queen” for France – all plaudits from countries who long ago overthrew their own monarchs and make great play of seeing the Crown as a relic from a medieval age. But its modern relevance and potency is being expressed anew now. In an age of culture wars and clashes of civilisations, the Queen stood as a symbol and a source of unity, both nationally and globally. Admiring her is something upon which billions of people, the world over, seem able to agree.
This isn’t a point about monarchy in general. There are 27 other kings and queens in the world, eight of them in the Arab world. But if Netflix ever makes a Saudi version of The Crown it’s likely to be more like Narcos: Mexico than a study in character. The Queen’s conduct, her daily diary of service, is what made her monarchy such a spectacular success: her power came from her restraint. Hers is a story that can only ever come from Britain, which is why she always was the country’s greatest single ambassador.
Now and again, research is conducted about Britain and its global reputation. Brexit might have given palpitations to certain newspapers and politicians but didn’t really dent how others see us. Surveys show that people think mainly of British people: the musicians and sportsmen, military, television and film personalities; politicians are pretty far down the list. And at the top is the monarch, whose understatement and service personified what so much of the outside world regards as British values – and ones with global appeal.
The logistics and security for next Monday are a nightmare because it will be a gathering such as which the world has seldom seen, with so many presidents and prime ministers under one roof. Xi Jinping has barely been outside of Beijing since the pandemic but is sending Wang Qishan, his vice president and right-hand man: a deployment viewed in China as the highest mark of respect. Biden, 79, hadn’t been expected to come because no American president ever has come here for a state funeral – but apparently, he wouldn’t be stopped. The Government’s practical concerns, quite literally, are about how many VVIP motorcades can fit on the M4.
In this way, the Queen continues to bring honour to Britain. And this was, perhaps, her greatest gift to her country: the ability to show the world our best self.