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The Queen was the ultimate matriarch, with a power exercised quietly and artfully | Gaby Hinsliff

Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone.

For once, the opening lines of WH Auden’s poem Funeral Blues seem to fit the moment. Like it or not, much of public life will grind to a halt in the black-tied days of mourning ahead, as broadcasters suspend their schedules and a state funeral is prepared.

However long it may have been gently anticipated, the death of the longest reigning monarch in British history is a significant and unsettling moment in a nation’s life. And never more so, perhaps, than when it coincides with the arrival of a new prime minister amid an emerging economic crisis. There was something terribly poignant about her insistence, even in what we know now were her dying days, on personally ushering Liz Truss into office.

The Queen has been a constant, steadying presence in the background of millions of lives for 70 years, a reassuring voice in troubled times. But it is the depth of knowledge accumulated over decades that may perhaps only be fully appreciated now. That benign, grandmotherly manner belied a keen and occasionally caustic intelligence.

Hers was a form of female power exercised so artfully as to be almost invisible. The sweeping nature of the constitutional powers she held – to dissolve parliament, or withhold consent from legislation – were tolerated within a modern democracy precisely because they were sparingly used. She helped shape and guide governments through her weekly audiences with 14 previous prime ministers, who all took their turn at stepping gingerly past the sleeping corgis lining the way to her study at Buckingham Palace.

But her political leanings went with her to the grave. The closest she perhaps strayed to expressing an opinion publicly was during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, when she told well-wishers outside a church service that Scots should think very carefully about their vote. Even then, the palace was furious when David Cameron was overheard revealing that she had “purred down the line” when told that Scotland had voted to stay.

The Queen pulled off the rare trick for a woman of exercising profound influence without inciting a backlash, in part because the scope of that influence remained so shrouded in mystery. She did not so much normalise the idea of a woman in charge as make the nation largely forget that that was what she was, while retaining the ability to freeze grown men with a look.

As Tony Blair noted in his autobiography, describing a G8 summit dinner of world leaders where some were evidently fooled by the relaxed atmosphere: “You don’t get matey with the Queen. Occasionally she can be matey with you, but don’t try to reciprocate, or you get The Look.”

The actor Olivia Colman, who played Elizabeth II in the Netflix series The Crown, once called her the “ultimate feminist”. But you suspect the Queen would never have claimed such a thing for herself, even if it is her face on all the money. There is more to feminism than being a woman who exercises power, and while she approved legal changes preventing future monarchs’ firstborn daughters being leapfrogged by their younger brothers in the line of succession, she did not obviously strive to leave a legacy for women.

When she made a point of her gender – as she rather fabulously did in 1998, electing to chauffeur the visiting Saudi crown prince around the Balmoral estate personally in her Land Rover at a time when Saudi women were not allowed to drive – the gesture of female solidarity was all the more striking for being so rare.

She treated feminism largely as a political issue on which she remained neutral, while granting her daughter-in-law Camilla intriguing licence in recent years to speak out on issues such as domestic abuse or the normalisation of sexual violence against women. But if she was no feminist icon, she became perhaps the ultimate matriarch, a word denoting not merely a position within the family but a very specific life stage.

Matriarchal power is the kind exercised by older women who have managed to become valued for their wisdom and experience, not overlooked once their youth fades; who have arguably earned the right to please themselves, yet choose to offer comfort and counsel to younger generations. A true matriarch is formidable, yet mature enough to put petty vanity aside. The monarch’s role as defined by the Victorian constitutional expert Walter Bagehot – to encourage and to warn her government, while having the grace not to enforce her views – could have been written for a matriarch. But if the Queen’s power lay in what her daughter, Princess Anne, once called her pragmatism, the new king may prove rather less inscrutable.

Perhaps that represents a movement with the times. The Queen’s iron sense of duty and emotionally contained manner resonated deeply with older generations, but younger ones increasingly see the suppression of feelings as unhealthy. Her apparent reluctance to emote publicly over the death of her daughter-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales marked one of the few times the monarch seemed out of step with her country, while the memory of her young grandsons walking publicly behind their mother’s coffin still reverberates uneasily down the years.

The younger of them, Prince Harry, would later renounce a conventional royal life, moving to California in 2020 with his new wife, Meghan, and baby son. When he talked earnestly of wanting to “break the cycle” as a father, some heard a veiled repudiation of the way generations of royals were raised, being cared for by nannies and then dispatched to boarding school. In his biography of Prince Charles, Jonathan Dimbleby described the Queen as a “not indifferent so much as detached” mother. But if she could sometimes seem distant when her children were small, she may have felt she had little choice.

Princess Elizabeth was only 25, and her children Charles and Anne three and one respectively, when her father’s death in 1952 catapulted her into the all-consuming role for which she had been groomed since childhood, but never expected to assume so soon. Any private maternal regret over those early years of weighty expectations and long overseas trips perhaps expressed itself in her determination to let Prince William enjoy time with his young children before assuming the working load of a future heir, and in her evident delight in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Queen had grown obviously frail of late, particularly after the death of her beloved Duke of Edinburgh, yet the sense of time running out if anything intensified her moral authority. Advised by doctors to rest rather than attend the Cop26 climate conference in 2021, there was a quiet urgency to the video message she sent in her place. “We none of us live for ever,” she said, 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 indeed.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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