The impossible has been overtaken by the inevitable. For many Britons, the idea that one day Elizabeth II might no longer be around was, of course, acknowledged and yet, partly because of her longevity, somehow unthinkable. The first of her prime ministers was Winston Churchill, the last Liz Truss, who — such are the polite formalities of a constitutional monarchy — was invited by the queen to form a new government on Tuesday. The only concession to the queen’s age and increasing frailty was that the meeting was held in Balmoral Castle, the royal family’s Scottish retreat, where she had been staying for a while. Returning to Buckingham Palace, where such meetings are usually held, was thought to be too much for her. The pictures tell their own story. The queen is, as so often, smiling, holding the walking stick that had become a rare concession to the passing of the years. It was to be her final official engagement, the last in a life that, on her 21st birthday — four years before she ascended to the throne — she had publicly dedicated to “service,” a promise she kept with skill, sensitivity, and remarkable dedication for three-quarters of a century.

One of the strengths of the British system is the thread of historical continuity that runs through its institutions. Over the years those institutions have evolved, sometimes too rapidly, sometimes too slowly, but never leaving the past entirely behind. The monarchy, itself an institution that has undergone enormous change over the centuries, has been the axis around which those institutions revolve and, however indirectly, a source of their legitimacy. The monarch is best understood these days as a symbolic incarnation of the British state, a “living flag,” to borrow a term from Lenin. The monarchy is powerful as a result of its formal powerlessness. It transcends the political fray, partly because it cannot (except, theoretically, in extraordinarily rare circumstances) play any material part in it. As such, it can play an invaluable unifying role, which is reinforced by the living link it represents with the past, a link that was only reinforced, in Elizabeth’s case, by the length of her life and, in an increasingly fractious United Kingdom, her close connection with, and fondness for, Scotland (her mother was of partly Scottish descent and was brought up there). It is somehow appropriate that Elizabeth died in Balmoral, a place that she loved.

The last serving head of state to have served in the military (she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1945) during the Second World War, Elizabeth stuck with the standards expected of Britain’s wartime generation, standards also reflected in the advice on the role of a modern constitutional monarch that she was given by George VI, the father she adored, a king profoundly shaped by the wartime years. Conscientious, hardworking, and self-disciplined, and with a life apparently free from scandal, Elizabeth rarely put a foot wrong. She did her best to ensure (with occasional, discreetly phrased exceptions, such as over Scottish independence) that she kept clear from revealing anything about her political views, exercising a discretion that, like so many of her other qualities, has not been so apparent in her successor, King Charles III.

The queen’s qualities, her generally careful adjustments to modern times, and, as the years passed, her seeming permanence have helped Britain weather turbulent and rapidly changing times. Almost perpetually popular (we should pass over the brief period of hysteria that followed the death of Princess Diana), in her later years she had become, if not quite the nation’s grandmother or great-grandmother, something akin to it, with a position in British minds and, often, hearts that is itself a tribute to a life very well lived. R.I.P.

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