Kennedy: Queen’s lessons from life of service

Matthew Kennedy
Guest Commentary

It will be remembered as one of those “where were you?” moments. Queen Elizabeth’s passing Sept. 8 wasn’t surprising. She was 96. The Queen had lived a long, joyous, and fulfilling life. 

Why should Americans care about a British monarch’s demise? Upon its founding, the United States deliberately chastised the monarchy. Why should rural U.S. readers have an interest in the Queen’s passing? She was socially, politically and economically insignificant to their lives. 

Queen Elizabeth II devoted her life to public service knowing she was under a constant microscope. The Queen conducted herself in a manner setting an example — an example that she recognized would be studied and emulated by all walks of life regardless of socio-economic status or nationality. She also understood the same example would be duplicated long after her passing, no matter how minor or vital her conduct, remarks or decisions were. 

Two examples distinguish themselves among many: her willingness to serve in the British military in World War II and her involvement in the Northern Ireland dispute.

She refused to use her royalty as an excuse from serving in the military. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service toward the end of the war. The organization served as the British army’s women’s branch.  Elizabeth joined as a driver and mechanic. She was the first female member of the royal family to serve in the UK’s military. She left as a honorary junior commander — the equivalent of a U.S. Army captain. 

She could have used her royal status to avoid military service. The future queen chose not to.

World War II impacted the British Isles across all walks of life, including the royal family. She sent a clear message that everyone had a duty to serve their country, regardless of how major or minor their role or class status. Her father, King George VI, furthermore, ensured she wasn’t given preferential treatment; a pursuit she adhered to. 

The Queen believed in reconciliation. She played a significant symbolic role in solidifying the peace process over Northern Ireland.

The area is contested between the English Protestant Loyalists and the Irish Catholic Unionists. The Loyalists favor remaining under England’s auspices, while the Unionists support joining with Ireland. The Loyalists-Unionists quarrel is a centuries-long dispute. 

She made several visits to Northern Ireland during her reign. The most notable occurred in 2011, when she shook hands with Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuiness.

The event is noteworthy considering McGuiness was a leader of the Provincial IRA at the time one of Queen Elizabeth’s cousins, Lord Mountbatten, was assassinated, resulting in an escalation of tensions during a period known as The Troubles in the early 1960s and late 1990s. At least 3,000 people died during the period.

There are unconfirmed reports McGuiness approved the operation against Mountbatten. Elizabeth’s gesture was an effort to allow history’s ghosts to rest. The handshake and visit facilitated the peace process started under the 1998 Good Friday Accord. It further eased tensions between London and Northern Ireland. 

Her lessons are applicable in the current age. We live in a time when both of Her Majesty’s attributes are lacking. We live in a period when reconciliation is unacceptable, when it’s viewed as weakness.

A strong possibility is the United States’ polarized climate could begin to end — if one side made a simple reconciliatory gesture toward the other.  It’s possible the event could instigate a healing process the United States needs. 

Queen Elizabeth set an example Americans should study and emulate.

I lived in England on three separate occasions. Queen Elizabeth was revered, respected and loved by the British people. Her death comes during a transition in the United Kingdom.

The nation is emerging from the pandemic. Its economy is suffering from inflation. The country’s health-care system is strained. And, the UK had just inaugurated a new prime minister.

Queen Elizabeth II’s passage into history comes at a critical juncture in the British Isles’ history. Great Britain’s new monarch will have a hard act to follow.

What remains unknown is what kind of leader will King Charles III become. Will he furnish similar leadership examples as his mother? Will he compel the British monarchy to be more politically active? Will he continue the Royals’ tradition of remaining figureheads?

Or, will King Charles III take the monarchy and the British people in an unanticipated direction? Queen Elizabeth’s passing and King Charles III ascension mark the end and beginning of a new era. The next several years will be telling for the monarchy and our British cousins, more importantly.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London.