Whether we’re republican or monarchist, we secretly know the Queen defines this nation

There was a decent crowd in Lower Regent Street heading for the Mall last Thursday for trooping the colour, platinum jubilee edition. But it wasn’t so difficult to weave through on my way to the Athenaeum club in St James’s. I had been invited to a jubilee lunch that was interrupted briefly to step into the club’s private garden and watch the jubilee fly-past.

I’m not a member of the Athenaeum, not to the manner born – I have a generous friend who takes me to lunch there occasionally. Most of the talk was about the war in Ukraine. There was not so much conversation about the big event taking place 100 yards away. And yet, the 70-year reign of Elizabeth II has underlined that this country is defined at home and abroad, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, by the monarchy.

All of the guests were of an age. We had all been through the big moments of Elizabeth’s reign. There was little new to say. My friend’s wife ordered coronation chicken for her main course. That was the one expression noting the occasion. The crowd outside the door was mostly English but there were a sizable number of foreign tourists. I didn’t get the sense that they had travelled to London especially – they just happened to be here and had gone along for the show.

The Americans who asked for directions at Holborn tube on how to get Green Park were definitely in town for the event, however. When it comes to the Queen and her family, many Americans can be described as modern monarchists. I built my career as a journalist on the prurient and awestruck interest of Americans in the House of Windsor. I could always sell a story on a royal scandal. The overseas presence was a reminder that, during the course of her seven decades on the throne, Elizabeth has become the global ideal of a monarch. People think: “If we could have a queen just like her, I’d be a monarchist.” The Queen’s fate has been to be a human tabula rasa on which people could see written their hopes.

In the late 1980s, when I was still new in Britain, my friends, generally of the republican persuasion, saw in her the last line of resistance to Margaret Thatcher. They told and retold a story of Elizabeth on an official visit to Glasgow, expressing outrage at Thatcher’s government, her government, when she saw the dire post-industrial condition of the place and saying: “These people have nothing.”

Did she really say that? It doesn’t matter. Her role is to be perceived as a symbol first and a human being second. The two perceptions collide at events such as the Buckingham Palace garden parties. Through my work, I was invited to one. There, along with a few thousand others invited for service to their communities, I would be in the royal presence.

The thousands wandered the palace grounds, admired the flamingos drinking from the pond, took tea in enormous marquees and then at a trumpet call gathered on the lawn as Her Majesty and her family emerged on to the rear terrace and formed a tableau while the national anthem was played. The Queen in front, Prince Philip two steps behind, the Prince of Wales the same distance behind, but on the other side of her.

Eventually, the Queen was led down the steps where a very small group of people were to be presented to her, but around this scene several hundred others crowded in, a murmuration of monarchists ebbing and flowing, hoping for a closer glimpse of the actual living human being: Her Majesty, as she worked her way around the select group. It was the most unphlegmatic, un-English behaviour. They couldn’t ask for autographs, but the folks who followed her across the lawn would have if they could. The following year, Diana, another human being turned into a tabula rasa, was killed. After her death, my republican-leaning friends and many pundits were of the opinion that the monarchy was doomed.

I knew differently. Over time, I had seen that the monarchy serves a similar function in British society as the constitution in my native US. It is a sacred symbol, the revered heart of national identity. You can rip it, abuse it, amend it, even cut off its head but you cannot do away with it, because then you would no longer be the same nation.

When foreign-born folk become citizens of the United States they swear their oaths in rooms that often have a framed picture of the constitution with its first three words written in extra large script: We the People.

When I finally became a British citizen in a ceremony at Hackney town hall, along with two dozen other immigrants, not all of them speaking English fluently, we sang God Save the Queen, her portrait looking out at us. We meant every word.

Symbols, totems, the core of national belonging. By then, a decade after Diana’s death, the Queen had reinvented herself – with the help of writer Peter Morgan, and actors Helen Mirren and Claire Foy – for her remarkably long and popular final act.

Over the last few days, the US TV networks have been in their key positions in front of Buckingham Palace. The last Lancaster bomber and surviving Spitfires flew past once again. There have been street parties and platinum piss-ups in pubs, all the rituals observed. But the jubilee has been muted. Many more people were trying to get off this island on Tuesday and Wednesday for a foreign trip than were heading to London to celebrate in the Mall. The Queen did not attend the thanksgiving service at St Paul’s, underscoring the sense that an era, if not an individual life, is over. If you don’t think the royal show will run and run, think of how many Britons are already looking forward to the reign of the next king’s son, the Queen’s grandson, William.

Michael Goldfarb, a former London correspondent for NPR, is the host of the podcast FRDH, First Rough Draft of History

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