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Robin Elliott: What we owe Queen Elizabeth II

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A portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth II on display Sept. 13 in a London shop in England. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's longest-reigning monarch and a rock of stability across much of a turbulent century, died Sept. 8 after 70 years on the throne. She was 96.

I found myself in London on Sept. 13 to watch the somber parade that accompanied the journey of Queen Elizabeth’s body from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall to lie in state last week.

I sat on the lawn alongside tens of thousands of my countrymen and -women in Hyde Park, our eyes fixed on the giant TV screen that had been set up for the occasion. The ground was still damp from the overnight rain, but nobody complained or even talked much. When a woman shouted to friends a bit too loudly that she had identified a vacant spot near me, her faux pas was answered by a hiss from the crowd.

My thoughts, however, were on that even rainier day almost 70 years ago when the young queen’s horse-drawn coach carried her through the same streets, as crowds cheered, to her coronation in that same park. I was 11 years old, and we watched it all on my grandmother’s precious new black-and-white TV set as I happily guzzled the ice cream and rare strawberries that had been set out for this special occasion.

On the screen at Hyde Park, my focus was on the Queen’s four adult children as they marched slowly down The Mall to the sound of mournful martial music. Of major interest was the new King Charles III, his somber mood and newly acquired gravitas pitch-perfect to the occasion.

He was accompanied by his sister Princess Anne, the accomplished horsewoman, her regal posture and military uniform all in place; his brother Prince Andrew, recently stripped of his (well-earned) military titles because of a publicized disgrace (also well-earned) in New York, but today resplendent in civilian morning-coat and tails; and his other brother Prince Edward, in the colors of the Royal Marines.

These children, too, no doubt once knew the kind of happiness I did, 70 years earlier. But there was pathos in that royal line-up: four very privileged people, some of them flawed, but all deeply aware of the majesty of the moment and firmly set on making sure that the event properly celebrated the extraordinary woman at the heart of it all.

The following day, I listened to one of those high-toned radio talk shows for which the BBC is known. The subject was 20th-century novelist and essayist George Orwell, who had nothing, and everything, to do with this woman and what she represented.

Orwell’s essayistic novel “1984,” that famous cri de coeur in the face of Soviet communism of the 1930s, warned us against taking for granted our democratic freedoms and values. Elizabeth was no political or ideological warrior, but in the values that she exemplified — decency, modesty, calmness, hard work, common sense, belief in diversity, respect for democratic institutions — she lived a life that quietly and doggedly challenged everything that ideologues of the extreme right and extreme left stood for.

Under her watch, Britain plodded along, preserving the values and many of the trappings of the past — even as it and other Western democracies opened their doors, bit by bit, to the recognition of new and urgent imperatives in such areas as human rights, women’s opportunities, racial justice, public health and economic inequality.

In our bid to avoid Orwell’s nightmare, Elizabeth’s role was always played out behind the scenes, not ahead of the pack. But it was critical.

How so? Quite simply, her calm presence, her rejection of any overt political role, her very practical, non-histrionic “ordinariness” helped steer the ship of state through seven decades of momentous change. She couldn’t unleash decrees or philosophies, rousing calls or flights of eloquence. But she did deploy a quiet campaign of decency, modesty, common sense, industry, commitment to family and respect for law and custom.

Come to think of it, this is not a bad set of reasons to pause the clock of human affairs for a couple of weeks — not just to ponder the durability of the antique institution she represented, but also to enjoy some moments of reflection, respect and gratitude that the world, too, survived as long as she did.

It is for all of this that we should thank her.

Rest in peace, ma’am.

Robin Anthony Elliott, born and educated in England, is president emeritus of the Parkinson’s Foundation and a part-time resident of Lee.

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