Elizabeth, the last matriarch

The missing queen wielded her power so skilfully that it was invisible. A profound influence that never backfired. Wisdom, an iron sense of duty, pragmatism, emotional control and no narcissism: these are the traits of sovereignty that make her a model of female authority
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Gaby Hinsliff for The Guardian

Stop all watches. Unplug the phone.

For once, the opening lines of WH Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, they seem to fit the moment. Like it or not, much of public life will come to a halt on days of mourning while broadcasters suspend their programmes and a state funeral is prepared.

However long it may have been predicted, the death of the longest reigning monarch in British history is a significant and worrying moment in the life of the nation. And never more so, perhaps, than when it coincides with the arrival of a new Prime Minister in the midst of an emerging economic crisis. There has been something terribly touching in his insistence, even in what we now know were his dying days, on personally commissioning Liz Truss.

The queen was a constant and stable presence against the backdrop of millions of lives for 70 years, a reassuring voice in difficult times. But it is the depth of wisdom accumulated over decades that perhaps only now can be fully appreciated. Those good-natured, grandmotherly ways concealed a sharp and occasionally caustic intelligence.

His era a form of female power exercised so skilfully as to be almost invisible. The broad nature of the constitutional powers he held - to dissolve parliament or withhold consent to legislation - were tolerated within a modern democracy precisely because they were used sparingly. He helped shape and guide governments through his weekly hearings with 14 previous prime ministers, who took turns carefully stepping over sleeping corgies in his Buckingham Palace study. But her political views have gone with her to the grave (...)

The Queen represented the rare female ability to exert a profound influence without triggering a reaction, and the extent of that influence has remained so shrouded in mystery. It did not so much normalise the idea of a woman in charge, rather it largely made the nation forget that it was what it was, while maintaining the ability to freeze grown men with a glance.

As Tony Blair noted in his autobiography, describing a G8 summit dinner of world leaders where some were fooled by the relaxed atmosphere: 'You don't befriend the queen. She may be your friend from time to time, but don't try to reciprocate or you will get The Look".

The actress Olivia Colman who played Elizabeth II in the Netflix series The Crown, once called it 'l'ultimate feminist ". But the queen would never claim such a thing for herself, even if all the money is her face. There is more to feminism than being a woman wielding power, and although I approved legal changes that prevent the first-born daughters of future monarchs from being bypassed by their younger brothers in the line of succession, she made no effort to leave a legacy for women. When she emphasised her gender - as she did so fabulously in 1998, choosing to personally drive his Land Rover during the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince on the Balmoral estate - at a time when Saudi women were not allowed to drive - her female solidarity was all the more surprising, being so rare.

She treated feminism largely as a political issue on which she remained neutral, while in recent years he has granted his daughter-in-law Camilla licence to speak on matters such as domestic abuse or sexual violence against women. But if she was not a feminist icon, perhaps she became the ultimate matriarch, a word that denotes not only a position within the family but a specific stage of life.

Matriarchal power is the kind of power wielded by older women who have managed to be appreciated for their wisdom and experienceand are not cast aside when their youth fades; who have earned the right to be pleased with themselves, yet choose to offer comfort and advice to the younger generation. A true matriarch is formidable, yet mature enough to set aside petty vanity. The role of the monarch as defined by the accomplished Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot - to encourage and warn one's government, while having the grace not to impose one's views - could have been written for a matriarch. But if the queen's power lay in what her daughter, Princess Anne, once called his pragmatism, the new king might turn out to be a little less inscrutable.

Perhaps this represents a sign of the times. The The Queen's iron sense of duty and emotionally restrained ways resonated deeply with the older generation, but the younger ones increasingly see the suppression of feelings as unhealthy. Its apparent reluctance to show his feelings publicly for the death of her daughter-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales, marked one of the few times when the monarch seemed to lose touch with her country (...) 

In his biography of Prince Charles, Jonathan Dimbleby described the queen as a mother "not so much indifferent as aloof". But if she had seemed distant when her children were small, perhaps it was because she had no choice.

Princess Elisabeth was only 25 years old and her children Charles and Anne three and one respectively when in 1952 the death of her father catapulted her into the all-encompassing role for which she had been prepared since childhood, but she never expected to have to take on so early. Any maternal regret for those early years of heavy expectations and long trips abroad perhaps expressed itself in the determination to allow Prince William to enjoy time with his young children before taking on the workload of a future heir, and in the obvious joy for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The queen had become fragile in recent times, particularly after the death of her beloved Duke of Edinburghbut the sense of time running out probably intensified his moral authority. Recommended by doctors to rest avoiding participation in the Cop 26 climate conference in 2021, in the video message that sent in its place had expressed a quiet urgency. 'None of us lives forever' she said, with a photograph of her late husband beside her. "But we are doing this not for ourselves, but for our children and our children's children'. 

Stop the clocks, really.

original article heretranslated by Marina Terragni


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