Called to serve

Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign will serve as a unique example of how selfless public service can hold societies together.

Princess Elizabeth making a speech in South Africa, 1947
While on a tour of South Africa in 1947, Princess Elizabeth addresses the Commonwealth in a radio broadcast. She would become queen four years later, after the death of her father King George VI. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Queen Elizabeth II’s reign was defined by duty and service
  • Her leadership guided the United Kingdom through turbulent times
  • This legacy will have a lasting impact on British society and politics

In 1947, during a tour of South Africa, on her 21st birthday, the young Princess Elizabeth made a speech that would define her 70 years as monarch. Her promise that “my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service” became her lodestar. It guided her unstinting belief in the centrality of public service and the principle of duty.

In his first message to the nation, King Charles III reiterated those same words, understanding that his mother redefined how, in a parliamentary democracy, a constitutional monarchy must be steeped in the selfless, stoic, and politically detached public service that Queen Elizabeth II exemplified.

Never partisan, her wise, generous and shrewd presence and leadership by example have been at the heart of the United Kingdom’s parliamentary democracy – and therefore of its politics – throughout my entire life.

A baby born at the beginning of the week in which the Queen died will have already lived through a change of head of state and prime minister.

I first saw the Queen when I was a child at primary school when she came to our town to open the new council offices. We lined the pavements, waved our flags and cheered.

Years later, during a visit to our Liverpool school for the blind this was the same Queen whom I was honored to welcome to my constituency; the same Queen who, throughout my 40 years since entering parliament in 1979, would tell us, in her Queens’ Speeches, what legislation her government intended to lay before us; the same Queen who since her accession to the throne in 1952 has given Royal Assent to 3,500 Acts of Parliament; the same Queen who was advised by and gave advice to 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss.

A baby born at the beginning of the week in which the Queen died will have already lived through a change of head of state and prime minister. That such a transition could take place in an orderly and peaceful manner tells us a great deal about the strength of a constitutional monarchy; about the stewardship of Queen Elizabeth II; and about the ground rules for good governance, she has bequeathed to King Charles III.

Direction and purpose

Democracy – in an age of authoritarian regimes, populists, ideologues and dictators – is a fragile thing. Buffeted in the headwinds of the pandemic, war, consequential economic instability and political extremism, our democracies are vulnerable to enemies, old and new.

In the face of such monumental challenges, which sometimes seem existential, a constitutional monarch has provided continuity, cohesion, courage, stability and strength. Vocational service and leadership can reorient relationships and attitudes.

Queen Elizabeth II’s abiding belief in seeking the best was never seen more vividly than during her historic reconciling visit to Ireland in 2011. It was a watershed, bridge-building moment in British-Irish relations, which have been mired in so much bitterness, violence and tainted history. The lasting impact of that visit is evidenced in the many tributes to the Queen from the nationalist community in Ireland.

She insisted that we must “bow to the past, but not be bound by it,” a view which would have been echoed by my late mother, born in County Mayo and whose first language was Irish.

This refusal to be bound by the past while honoring our traditions was not a new discovery. It was already there in her 1947 speech in Cape Town. She had the duty to steer the ship of state from its colonial and imperial past into the opportunities that a network of countries like the Commonwealth potentially offered all its member states.

She knew that to survive, the monarchy had to remain relevant and engaged.

The outpouring of grief, whether in these islands or in those jurisdictions where she was head of state, or simply greatly admired – is deeply instructive about what a life of service can achieve.

The constitutional requirement of neutrality should not be confused with disinterest. Quite the reverse. She was intensely interested in the granular detail of issues and challenges affecting every part of her realm. Perhaps nowhere more so than Scotland. With constant attempts by separatists to break the Union, her gentle death in Scotland at Balmoral was like one final appeal from the monarch to sustain the Act of Union.

The outpouring of grief, whether in these islands or in those jurisdictions where she was head of state, or simply greatly admired – is deeply instructive about what a life of service can achieve.

This same intuitive approach has also redefined the United Kingdom’s postimperial place in the world.

In her 1947 Cape Town Speech the young princess said we could no longer simply see the world through the eyes of William Pitt. She insisted we must embrace all people “whatever race they come from, and whatever language they speak.”

She knew that by building on the best while embracing change would give the emerging democracies of the Commonwealth a common sense of direction and purpose.

Not unlike her belief in an evolving monarchy, she said that “an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart,” would make the Commonwealth “which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing – more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world – than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers.”

A child watches Queen Elizabeth II giving a speech on television
In April 2020, Queen Elizabeth II made a rare, televised address to encourage the nation to stay united and determined amid unprecedented circumstances. © Getty Images

Throughout her reign the Queen tirelessly promoted the Commonwealth and Britain’s place in the world, visiting more than 100 countries, promoting commercial, diplomatic and strategic international relations.

From his mother, King Charles III has inherited this extraordinary network of nations.

The Commonwealth is home to almost a third of the world’s population, comprising 2.4 billion people living in some 56 countries – an amazing legacy.

But whether at home or abroad, the watchword has been public service and duty. This was the vocation to which she knew she was called when she emphatically declared: “There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors – a noble motto, ‘I serve.’ ”

She often said that her belief in public service was inspired by her faith. In 1947 she called on God to help her to make good her vow. Down the decades in each of her Christmas Day broadcasts she would remind the country of the centrality of her faith and of her profound respect for people of other faiths and traditions. The central message was service for the common good.

At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, she pointed the British people to the future, saying “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”

These characteristics and attributes that she hoped might identify the British people – good humor, resolve, self-discipline and fellow-feeling – are most certainly qualities that can be ascribed to a much-loved and remarkable Queen who promised to serve her country throughout all her days and unfailingly kept her word in doing so.

In 2007, during a Roscoe Lecture to which I had invited Prince Charles, now King Charles III, to deliver in Liverpool, he cited the words of the poet T.S. Eliot, referring to the celestial metaphor of the “cycles of heaven.” The heavenly cycles have now entrusted him with his mother’s rich legacy – and if we reflect on what he has had to say about the duties of citizenship and on his reiteration of her call to public service – we can see that the future of the UK’s constitutional monarchy is in good hands.

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