For me, the most striking aspect of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign was her iron determination. In those seven decades, she very rarely let slip her views about any of the great political and public events over which she presided. She has never even hinted at her views on any of the glittering public figures with whom she dealt.
We don’t know what she thought about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or Margaret Thatcher. And we never will. Elizabeth was the most disciplined public figure of the past century.
In a confessional age, when we post every idea, urge, impulse and image that pops into our heads, this woman kept her own counsel. As Tina Brown, author of the fascinating book “The Palace Papers,” notes, Elizabeth was careful even at her own family’s weddings and funerals, rarely smiling or weeping, always maintaining dignity and the appearance of detachment.
That was her interpretation of her role as a constitutional monarch, one who leads all the people and never takes sides, and she played it better than anyone ever has.
Even during the contentious debate over Brexit, she never let slip her own preferences. (Then-Prime Minister David Cameron had to apologise in person for revealing that she was pleased that Scotland voted down independence in its own referendum.)
It’s easy to think of Britain’s royal family as leading a charmed life. They get to live in grand palaces, enjoying the world’s attention and, for the most part, adulation.
But the queen demonstrated the other side of that coin: that doing it right, fulfilling one’s duty, can be hard and unsparing in its own way. An endless stream of public duties, large and small, must be fulfilled. Above all, it requires an abnegation of the self.
In a way, the odyssey of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, reveals the challenge of the modern monarchy.
Given their fame, Harry and Meghan appear to have realised that they could break out, cash in and enjoy much greater affluence with far more personal freedom — and so they did. But they were acting as individualists, maximising their satisfaction. The queen acted as an institutionalist, preserving the stature of the British government.
The 19th-century writer Walter Bagehot famously wrote that any constitutional system needs two parts — one “dignified,” the other “efficient.” One to awe the public and the second to make government work. Elizabeth perfectly exemplified the dignified aspect.
We live in an age in which few people think about institutions and even fewer are willing to make the sacrifices involved in upholding them.
We live life as individuals but also as part of a society. And to make societies function well, we have always needed some norms that ask the individual to step back, to sacrifice some ego, and to play a role in a larger project. No one has performed those duties better than Queen Elizabeth II.
Fareed Zakaria is a noted American journalist, political commentator, and author