With her penchant for bracing country walks in sensible skirts, her modest Tupperware habit and love of horses, the late Queen always seemed a down-to-earth, quintessentially British figurehead. But at the same time, she was a strongly international figure who had talked and clinked glasses with a wide array of foreign heads of state all the way back to the mid 20th century.
She entertained leaders from across the globe, including 13 US presidents from Harry Truman to Joe Biden, an array of European leaders including Charles de Gaulle and Angela Merkel, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. She even had lunch with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. In 2003, when Saudi women were not allowed to drive, she famously took then Saudi crown prince Abdullah on what has been described as a “terrifying” ride around her Balmoral estates in her Land Rover using “military grade” driving skills to effectively troll the leader in the name of feminism. She travelled liberally and her knowledge of world leaders was said to be second to none. She even became Queen when abroad – at the Treetops safari lodge in Kenya.
Little wonder that news of her death and commemorations of her life are plastered across the front pages of newspapers the world over, with heartfelt messages and personal tributes from government and state leaders laced through the more official-sounding ones. If there were reservations, republican disdain for monarchies, or geopolitical disagreements, they mostly passed unaired in the aftermath of the death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
The messages poured in – from the UN secretary-general, who praised her “reassuring presence throughout decades of sweeping change, including the decolonization of Africa and Asia and the evolution of the Commonwealth” and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, to the Pope and the Dalai Lama, who said she had lived “a meaningful life with dignity, grace, a strong sense of service and a warm heart, qualities we all should treasure.”
Almost too many to keep track. But it was the contributions from French president Emmanuel Macron that attracted particular interest and praise. In a statement that looked back at her childhood, her rapport with the British people, and her six state visits to France, he wrote:
“She held a special place in France and a special place in the hearts of the French people… For her, French was not a mere relic of Norman ancestry that persisted in so many customs, but an intimate, cherished language. The Queen of 16 kingdoms loved France, which loved her back.”
While the British-French relationship is going through a tough patch following Brexit, an even testier relationship is the one with Northern Ireland’s republicans. When the Queen visited Ireland 11 years ago – the first by a British monarch in a century – Sinn Fein snubbed her. Not now. Michelle O’Neil, vice president of the party that wants to break with Britain and the monarchy, expressed her “sincere sympathies and condolences” to the Queen’s family:
“Personally, I am grateful for Queen Elizabeth’s significant contribution and determined efforts to advancing peace and reconciliation between our two islands. Throughout the peace process she led by example in building relationships with those of us who are Irish, and who share a different political allegiance and aspirations to herself and her Government.”
The outpouring of international affection has been astonishing, even for a monarch who is known to be popular. In the hours and days after her death, the Queen’s image and the Union Jack were projected on buildings and famous landmarks – Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Sydney Opera House, the Matterhorn in Switzerland. In Paris, the entire clientele of a restaurant stood up in silent respect.
It’s an interesting time for monarchy cynics expecting the Queen’s death to spark debate about the institution’s future. So soon after her death, it’s not the time. But also, maybe nobody has the stomach for such divisiveness at a time of turmoil like this. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the resultant energy crisis, the alarming developments on climate, with deadly floods in Pakistan and droughts in Europe, inflation, Brexit, Covid, culture wars – all this is exhausting enough, so maybe the thinking for those who would complain is simply “let’s just pay our respects to a universally liked old lady without opening any more battlefronts”. As everyone keeps saying, the Queen’s presence was one of the few constants, an oasis of calm in the madness, a projection of sanity.
There would be little cynicism in royalty-mad America, where Joe and Jill Biden released a joint statement, calling Queen Elizabeth II “a stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy who deepened the bedrock Alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States… Her legacy will loom large in the pages of British history, and in the story of our world.”
The previous two presidents also gave their tributes – in their differing ways. “Michelle and I were lucky enough to come to know Her Majesty, and she meant a great deal to us…Back when we were beginning to navigate life as President and First Lady, she welcomed us to the world stage with open arms and extraordinary generosity,” wrote Barack Obama. He said her reign had been “defined by grace, elegance and a tireless work ethic, defying the odds and expectations placed on women of her generation. Donald Trump, who was clearly starstruck during his 2019 state visit, opined: “What a grand and beautiful lady she was – there was nobody like her.”
The US media, too, were on board, with the Washington Post describing the Queen as “a constant and reassuring figure” who “helped lead her country through a period of profound shifts in geopolitical power and national identity.” A line matched by the New York Times, which said her death “marks the loss of a revered monarch who presided over Britain’s adjustment to a post-colonial era and saw it through its divorce from the EU”.
Not everyone got the memo. As the exception that proves the rule, MSNBC columnist Hayes Brown wrote that while the monarchy might get a boost from the current outpouring of sympathy, “it is all the more likely, and better, in my view, that Elizabeth II be viewed in history as the last of the British monarchs to have any real claim of ruling the British people.”
More commonly, even rivals and pariahs were on message. Putin, architect of the brutal Ukraine war and regular issuer of sarcastic and acerbic put downs to foreign leaders, managed to be respectful and polite, wishing the new King courage and resilience, and saying that the Queen had “rightfully enjoyed the love and respect of her subjects, as well as authority on the world stage.” He wishes.
It was nevertheless disconcerting, with the Russian president’s statement appearing as if the last six months had never happened. He was joined by his ally in war, Belarus, as well as China and India, whose leaders refuse to condemn Russia over its aggression, in paying homage to the Queen. Maybe it would have been worse if they had kept silent, but it all still jars.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky took time out of the fight to save his country from Russia’s invasion to offer the “thoughts and prayers” of the people of Ukraine. In her death, the Queen has managed to unite aggressor and defender at least on this one issue.
Among European leaders, especially those in the European Union and subject to the brickbats of Brexit, the mood was reflective. Was there sorrow for what has been lost – not just the Queen but also the country? There was a wistfulness to repeated references to the war and the Queen’s role in it – and not in the bombastic way that the likes of Mark Francois choose to bring it up.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz, leader of the country that was at war with the Queen’s during her youth, gave a televised statement that sounds both like an obituary to the Queen and a barb to those who led her country away from her path of decency: “The Queen embodied the best of our shared European inheritance, democracy and the rule of law,” he said. “Germany also mourns the British Queen Elizabeth.”
The European media, too, got with the programme. Even anti-monarchists softened. The French left-wing republican newspaper Liberation devoted 19 pages to the story as it reported extensively on the news that “sent a shockwave round the world”, included an editorial that wondered: “Can she really depart so suddenly, an island of stability in a world in which everything seems to be changing too quickly?”
The seam of nostalgia for pre-Brexit times could be found here too, in an apparent attempt to show how the Brexiteers were out of step with the Queen they looked to as a sign of their independence and sovereignty. Le Monde focused on the succession and the new King, while discussing his late mother as a “European Queen”, who referred to Europe as “our continent” and warned of the need to guard against divisions within.
“In contrast to most Britons, the Queen, who had been 19 years old in 1945, seemed to recognize the existence of a link between peace and building up Europe,” Philippe Bernard wrote in the paper. “This is evident in her long-standing pro-European convictions which –although expressed with extreme moderation – allowed her to be perfectly consistent in a most heated debate.”
To emphasise the point, the editorial also cited the Queen in 1992, shortly after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, to considerable controversy in the United Kingdom: “In a world of instability (…), the European Community is a model of peace and progress,” she is quoted as saying. “The Anglo-Saxon tradition is to the Latin tradition in Europe what oil is to vinegar. You need both to make the dressing. Otherwise, the salad is poorly seasoned.”
And no Queen and Europe story would be complete without some sighting of the
2019 photograph of her wearing a blue hat with yellow flowers, which with its resemblance to the European Union flag offered Remainers some specks of comfort with the belief that she was coming out on their side. This speculation was quashed by the milliner, but it hasn’t stopped the search for clues. A piece in Süddeutsche Zeitung explored how the well-informed monarch who never breathed an opinion in public could make her points in code – including a brooch given to her by the Obamas, which she wore to a dinner with Trump.
And on and on it goes. In Italy, La Repubblica looked back at the Queen’s 70 years on the throne “From Churchill to the Beatles” and Covid. Corriere della Sera busily tried to cover everything, from the death of the Queen and funeral plans to the future “Carlo III”, the “solitude of Prince Harry” and posted a video from a G20 photoshoot in 2009 showing the Queen’s irritation with Italy’s then premier Silvio Berlusconi. At one point, he shouts a loud greeting across the room: “Mr Obama, sono Berlusconi!” The Queen throws her hands in the air. “What is it? Why does he have to shout?” Unsurprisingly, Obama’s response is much quieter. In Belgium, Le Soir described the profound effect the Queen on British lives, but then turned its attention to Charles, likening him to the subject of a Holbein painting, “Agile, haughty, athletic and tan” but also a tormented figure with a “contemplative soul”.
If the monarchy cynics were perplexed by the near-uniformity of the reverential international tributes and media coverage in Britain, the US and across Europe, the particular response of Commonwealth countries may be even more of a surprise. The Queen’s love of the Commonwealth is well known, but the cooperation of former coloniser and colony can be pretty incomprehensible to later generations who grew up after the end of the British Empire. As she presided over the loss of the colonies, the Queen got to know many independence leaders, and in many cases, it seems the affection was returned – for the Queen if not necessarily for the institutions that had oppressed them.
In a time when decolonisation, statue-demolishing and a backlash against old, benign narratives of Empire are overriding themes among the younger generation, how can this hold? And indeed, there were shades of indifference in part of the media in Commonwealth countries, especially the 14 that still have the British monarch as head of state. In Jamaica, a country looking to change that, a leading newspaper, the Gleaner, discussed whether the death of the Queen would make the break with monarchy easier to implement, because there would be “less affection for the symbolism that she represents as a powerful woman in the world.”
Yet Commonwealth leaders lined up to honour the Queen. Even those who had already become republics, such as Barbados president Sandra Mason, who declared: “Just under one year ago Barbados took the decision to complete the course of independence by breaking constitutional ties with the British monarchy and establishing the world’s newest republic. Significant as that decision was, given the place Barbados has held in the British Empire for centuries, it did not in the least diminish the friendship between our two nations, or indeed with Buckingham Palace.”
It always seems to come back to the same ideas – we liked the Queen and her role in the world, we haven’t got the energy for any more divisions, and any argument we have over monarchy or democracy will be shelved until later when everything else isn’t so awful.
Among the multitude of tributes to the Queen, one particular response gained a lot of traction, featuring across social media, in the British press, on Euronews and media websites in several countries. It’s not from an emotional head of state or a columnist offering dry analysis on the portentous news, but a character from children’s literature – Paddington Bear.
The Queen – who was reportedly a keen amateur actor and mimic – filmed a sketch for her Platinum Jubilee at Windsor Castle with the bear with a fondness for marmalade, when he joined her for a messy afternoon tea. Famously voiced in Ukraine by Zelensky in his acting days, Paddington is effectively a refugee from Peru, coming to the UK as an “illegal” stowaway and receiving a warm welcome and a home to live in with a friendly family that adopts him, unlike the many asylum seekers that the Home Office has been detaining and trying to send on to Rwanda.
In this, his character speaks to two unpleasant themes of the day. Yet as an “individual”, he is untouched by the anger people feel for the issues around him – the narrative is all good, and he is seen only with affection by pretty much anybody, regardless of their views.
As is the Queen, particularly in her later days, to whom Paddington simply said in his own little tribute: “Thank you, Ma’am, for everything.”