A monarch’s patient work toward post-empire equality

Queen Elizabeth II shepherded Britain through the loss of an empire with persistent perfecting of the ideal of service.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is silhouetted during welcoming ceremonies in Barbados in 1989.

In her first formal address to the British Empire, on the advent of her 21st birthday in 1947, then-Princess Elizabeth offered what might have been heard as the boilerplate idealism of a young future sovereign not expecting the weight of the world to land on her shoulders anytime soon.

“If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart,” she said through a BBC microphone, “we shall be able to make of this ancient 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. ... To accomplish that, we must give nothing less than the whole of ourselves.”

The speech marked the moment when she formally based her sense of royal duty on the Christian ethic of the master as servant. Read today, however, at the close of an unprecedented reign shaped not by the preservation of an empire but by its fragmentation, that passage may be better understood through a different biblical lens. As Isaiah put it: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little: For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.”

When empires fall, the clouds of resentment they kick up can take generations to settle. Islamist extremists cite the “humiliation and disgrace,” as Osama bin Laden put it, of the collapse of the Ottoman sultanate in 1918. Vladimir Putin rues the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20th century.

Those men have sought the restoration of past glory through violence. By contrast, Queen Elizabeth II, who died yesterday after 70 years on the British throne, sought the stability of a global future based on a renewal of affections. Although she did so only through carefully scripted statements and tightly choreographed events (she never gave an interview to the media), her public life illustrated how individuals and societies change – gradually, through a persistent perfecting of their highest ideals.

Times of trial, she said in her final address to the Commonwealth, the assembly of former colonies that was her lasting post-imperial legacy, should lead “to a deeper appreciation of the mutual support and spiritual sustenance we enjoy by being connected to others.” It was through that ideal, said King Charles in a brief tribute to his mother today, that "we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths."

Britain has lost its longest-serving monarch. But the queen’s passing offers the world a moment to pause and, reflecting on her example, renew the patient, humble work of ensuring equality and service as global norms.

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