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The subtle power of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign

Queen Elizabeth II attends a service for the Order of the British Empire at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, on March 7, 2012. | Geoff Pugh/WPA/Getty Images

The longest-reigning monarch in British history maintained a “blank slate” onto which her subjects, fellow politicians, and the world could project.

Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, died September 8 at Balmoral Castle on her Scottish estate. She was 96 years old, and had been on the throne since the age of 25. Her death marks the end of one of the most successful reigns in any contemporary monarchy.

The 20th century saw monarchs across Europe deposed or exiled or executed. Elizabeth grew up surrounded by royal relatives fleeing their home countries amid the chaos of World War II and taking refuge in England. But under her reign, Britain’s monarchy didn’t only survive. It continued to be downright popular — and so was she.

A recent UK poll showed the queen rejoicing in a favorability rating of 75 percent. Advocates for a British republic frequently cite the queen’s popularity as the reason England remains a monarchy. In his biography Queen of Our Times, Robert Hardman quotes the Australian Labor Party leader Neville Wran as saying, “The biggest problem we’ve got is the Queen! Everybody loves her.”

The queen’s popularity comes from a source that can feel somewhat remarkable in America, with its glad-handing politics. She has been beloved for decades not for a sparkling charisma or great rhetorical flair, but for her steadfast and superhuman ability to give absolutely nothing away.

“Never complain, never explain,” is the unofficial motto of the royal family, and the queen herself served as its living embodiment. Elizabeth lived her life with ferocious discipline, pressing herself into the form of a blank slate onto whom onlookers could project practically anything. She made being a little bit dull into an art form, of which she became the world’s greatest practitioner.

As such, she provided her monarchy with its greatest asset: Queen Elizabeth II was anyone her people wanted her to be.

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“Because she has spent her entire life being such a closed book, people project onto her whatever they want her to be,” a former royal adviser says of the queen in Tina Brown’s insider royal tell-all The Palace Papers. “Because she’s not showing any emotion at all, she’s not dividing that audience. She’s not on one side or the other. And that must be exhausting for her.”

“She sees the relevance of what she’s doing in a wider context.”

Elizabeth was born on April 21, 1926. Television as a technology was three months old. America’s Great Depression was three years away. Just eight years before, the Russian czars had been executed. As Elizabeth was born, a politically charged coal miners’ strike had royalists fearing that the English Windsors would be next.

At the time, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne and an unlikely target for anyone’s revolutionary fervor. She was the eldest daughter of a second son, and her uncle Edward was the heir to the throne. Nonetheless, she seems to have been equipped with a strong sense of duty early on, along with a love for tidiness and thrift. When she wept during her christening at Buckingham Palace, it would, Sarah Bradford wrote in her 1996 biography Elizabeth, be “the last time that Elizabeth ever made a public scene.” Hardman reports that one of Elizabeth’s favorite nursery toys was a dustpan and brush, and that she kept a special box where she would store wrapping paper and ribbons for reuse.

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The Duke and Duchess of York with their daughter, Elizabeth, immediately after their return from Australia in 1927.

In 1936, Edward abdicated the throne, and Elizabeth’s father ascended to become King George VI. Elizabeth was now abruptly heir to the throne and a key diplomatic asset. According to Hardman, the shy young princess found the shift difficult, but she applied her characteristic work ethic to her new life. The British peer Alathea Fitzalan-Howard wrote in her diary of meeting “Lilibet” — Elizabeth’s childhood nickname — at a drinks party in 1941 and being proud of her. “Lilibet finds making conversation very difficult like me; but she did very well,” she wrote. Already Elizabeth had hit upon her favorite conversational strategy: “She insisted on bringing the dogs in,” Fitzalan-Howard’s diary entry continued, “because she said they were the greatest save to the conversation when it dropped.”

In 1952, Elizabeth’s father died, and the 25-year-old ascended to the throne. Reportedly, she was at first overwhelmed by the brutal grind of life as a working monarch. On a tour of Australia in 1954, Hardman writes, “the Queen was heard to complain wearily (but uncharacteristically) that this endless diet of mayoral platitudes was ‘boring, boring, boring.’”

No one would ever catch the queen saying such a thing later in her reign. Instead, she tended to chide those who ever suggested that any of her royal duties might be uninteresting.

Hardman quotes a former private secretary who remarked to the queen that a reception for the Commonwealth Auditors’ Association would be “quite a boring one.”

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Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, wave at the crowds from the balcony at Buckingham Palace after Elizabeth’s coronation on June 2, 1953.

“‘She shredded me,’ the secretary said. ‘The Queen said, “This is not boring. This is interesting and important because these are the people bringing up the standards and fighting corruption in some really difficult countries. They need the support and the encouragement they get from me and this operation.” In other words, she sees the relevance of what she’s doing in a wider context.’”

That stern focus on the wider context, that insistence that her work is interesting because it is necessary, is part of a sense of discipline the queen brought to the royal family. In the monarchy, such focus is necessary, because the job is unending. Being royalty means living your life in public — not just for decades, like movie stars, but always and forever.

“Celebrities flare and burn out. The monarchy plays the long game,” writes Brown in The Palace Papers. “There is no time stamp on the public’s interest in you as long as it’s clear that your interest is the public’s. As the Queen’s grandmother Queen Mary once said to a relative, ‘You are a member of the British royal family. We are never tired and we all love hospitals.’”

Elizabeth’s reticence emerged as a natural consequence of this discipline. She was “schooled,” Brown writes, “to erect inflexible, lifelong barriers around her private thoughts and feelings.” Those barriers would serve her well over her decades of work. Her refusal to ever grant a single interview throughout her reign, Brown writes, “only enhanced her mystique.”

“The Queen has the instincts of a performer.”

Elizabeth’s mystique was real. Since the early days of her reign, those who met the queen were struck by her palpable abilities as a performer. Notably, what she performed was not charm, but stateliness.

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Elizabeth talks with the Emir of Bahrain in 1979 in Bahrain.

Hardman quotes the Economist on the queen during her 1971 visit to France, when the UK was trying to join the European Economic Community. “She remains a symbol in Europe, in a way the Britons barely appreciate,” the Economist wrote. A symbol of what, exactly? “That very difficult mixture of democracy and stability,” the French foreign minister told the magazine.

In 2016, President Barack Obama compared the queen to Nelson Mandela. They were both, he said, “leaders who have seen so much, whose lives span such momentous epochs, that they find no need to posture or traffic in what’s popular in the moment; people who speak with depth and knowledge, not in sound bites. They find no interest in polls or fads.”

Danny Boyle, who directed the queen during her cameo for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, put it more simply. “The Queen has the instincts of a performer,” he said in The Palace Papers — “she is, after all, ‘on the stage’ all the time.”

Elizabeth’s insistence on being on the stage all the time meant that she could, in a real sense, be all things to all people.

“She is supposed to be as infallible as the Pope and as neutral as Switzerland,” Hardman writes, “while also being human, interesting, broadly positive and always likable.” In a frankly astonishing achievement, the only one of those job requirements at which the queen consistently failed was being interesting. Throughout her reign, her greatest political weakness was the vague sense that she was a bit boring. “She has done and said nothing that anybody will remember,” historian David Starkey wrote in 2015.

For a queen whose reign included more than one royal scandal, being unmemorable would in and of itself be a victory. But Elizabeth was cannier than that. Over the past decade’s flurry of royal weddings, gossip, and scandal, the queen’s blank slate has allowed onlookers to imaginatively ally her with whichever camp they pleased.

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Queen Elizabeth II, second from left, with the Queen Mother, Princess Diana, and Prince Charles in Scotland in September 1982.

In Lifetime’s miniature franchise of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle films, the queen is a staunch ally to her grandson and his mixed-race wife. The anti-Meghan camp, meanwhile, has plenty of room to align her with the behind-the-scene traditionalists of “the Firm” who manage the palace machinery. In The Crown and The Queen, screenwriter Peter Morgan imagines Elizabeth meeting each successive scandal fraught, conflicted, but ultimately lovable. The 2021 Diana biopic Spencer imagines the queen as a twinkly-eyed enigma: the one member of the royal family Diana seems to look up to, but kept always at a remove that adds to Diana’s isolation.

The one notable exception to the queen’s ability to ride out a scandal without comment came with her commitment to her second son, Prince Andrew. In 2011, Andrew was accused of engaging in sex trafficking along with the notorious Jeffrey Epstein. Brown reports that the queen immediately sent for Andrew and asked him if it was true, and, when Andrew denied all accusations, “made it plain to the press that her second son had her full protection.” She granted him the insignia of a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order: “her highest gong,” as Brown put it.

Even after her support failed Andrew, the queen refused to fully withdraw it. In 2019, he gave a widely criticized interview about the accusations to the BBC, during which he struggled to defend his longstanding friendship with Epstein. Days later, he announced that he would be stepping down from royal life. Two days after that, he and the queen were spotted riding together on the Windsor Castle estate. The queen, Brown writes, believed that after some time had passed, she’d be able to work him back into the fold.

After all, the queen played a long game. And Andrew aside, her enigmatic presence gave her the power to do work of much more consequence than outlasting a few decades of scandals.

“That extraordinary ability she has to balance the mystique of the monarchy.”

Elizabeth had a singular role as queen. Her five immediate predecessors were all emperors or empresses. But by the time Elizabeth took the throne, the idea of a British empress was out of the question: the British Empire was no more. Instead, Elizabeth would oversee the Empire’s transition into the Commonwealth, an entity in which she held a great deal of symbolic power and absolutely no political power — not that she held much hard political power anywhere else.

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Elizabeth delivers the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords during the opening of Parliament in May 2021.

“It has been her duty to cede power and transfer sovereignty with a smile and a friendly handshake,” Hardman writes. “At the start of her reign, she was still expected to hand-pick prime ministers, to decide when to dissolve Parliament, even to vet her nation’s theatrical output and sail the world in a royal yacht. No more.” Brown describes the queen as “a master throughout her reign at the art of gracious retreats while somehow preserving the aura of sovereignty.”

Because of that aura of sovereignty, the queen was able to serve as a major political asset precisely as her actual powers diminished. Hardman argues that in the 1970s, while the UK’s economic and military might lessened, the queen’s popularity kept the nation “punching above its weight on the world stage.” He cites her 1976 state visit to France, after which then-President Valery Giscard d’Estaing went from considering Britain “weak” and himself “not an anglophile” to describing the queen as “a perfect sovereign” and “rejoicing” at the prospect of a “new entente” between “the two oldest nations in Europe.”

In 1975, a newly independent Papua New Guinea asked Elizabeth to serve as their ceremonial head of state. “They liked her,” Hardman explains, “they wanted someone neutral and they liked the honours and decorations which she was able to confer.”

Elizabeth’s blank slate, once again, was her superpower: It made her appear so neutral that it would be safe to give her enormous ceremonial powers. It was as though she could only embody the full power of the sovereign if she ceded the right to offer any opinions of what should be done with it.

Antony Jay, author of Elizabeth R, a 1992 biography that would be enormously influential within the walls of Buckingham Palace, thought of the queen as having two roles, unique to her and her reign. Hardman explains the split as follows: “The Queen was head of state, a predetermined and defined role which applied to every monarch. The second role was what Jay called ‘head of the nation’; this was more personal and less specific, encompassing her role as a ‘focus of allegiance’, a champion of continuity, dutiful public service and much else.”

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Elizabeth inspects the First Battalion Grenadier Guards at Buckingham Palace in May 2010.

The queen was head of the state because the laws of succession made her one. But she was head of the nation because her peculiar political skills, her deliberate blankness and steadfast devotion to duty, and her longevity, made her so well-suited for the task.

Hardman quotes former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the queen’s abilities. “The reason why she’s been so successful is that extraordinary ability she has to balance the mystique of the monarchy whilst moving with the culture of the country over time,” Blair said. “That is her unique intelligence and that’s what she does really well. In a small ‘p’ political sense — nothing to do with party politics — she has a near genius.”

With all signs of extraneous personality ruthlessly eradicated, the queen was free to serve as a symbol — of whatever her onlookers pleased, certainly, but also and most potently, of stability. Over seven decades on the throne, she served as a link between the end of an empire and the beginning of a cosmopolitan liberal democracy.

“It matters to people that she represents wartime sacrifice,” Hardman quotes Obama as saying. “She represents the acceptance of decolonization. She represents victory in the Cold War and she represents the values of a good relationship.”

Even Cuban leader Fidel Castro could see the political value Elizabeth offered. Hardman recounts an anecdote in which the prime minister of an unnamed Caribbean island was considering exiting the British commonwealth. Castro advised him that as long as Elizabeth didn’t interfere in the island’s day-to-day affairs, that would be a bad move. “You want to be a big tourist island and she’s good for showing off your stability,” he said.

So what will happen now, without the queen’s steady, unflinching presence?

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Queen Elizabeth II in 2015.

“Take Elizabeth II out of the frame at the splendor of state dinners for visiting presidents, the solemn obsequies for fallen war heroes, and the glorious theater of the opening of Parliament, when the mere glimpse of her scarlet velvet ermine robe makes even the unruliest of MPs sit up straight, how will anyone know how to be British anymore?” writes Brown in The Palace Papers. “In an age when everyone has opinions, she has maintained the discipline of never revealing hers. Her epic stoicism has come to signify the endurance of the nation.”

Over the course of her nearly 70 years on the throne, the queen has served as a bridge between past and present, essential and implacable as concrete. Whatever her successor brings to the throne, it will have to be something quite different.

Correction, September 8, 3:40 pm ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year President Obama gave remarks comparing the queen to Nelson Mandela; it was 2016.

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