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Dr Rowan Williams tribute to Queen Elizabeth II: 'She set the highest of standards'

Queen Elizabeth II meeting Dr Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury. (PA Images/Alamy)

Dr Rowan Williams

4 min read

It is not easy to find anything to say about our collective bereavement that has not by now been said, and said eloquently, by many across the country and the world.

But for readers of this website, there are a couple of things about these sad days that might give us food for thought as we look towards the resumption of routine political life after the first time of mourning has passed.

It will not be easy to forget the way in which the news of Her Majesty’s condition was passed to those engaged in debate in the Commons, a moment captured forever on the broadcast proceedings of Parliament. The management of crises, the bitter arguments over how to deal with political pressures, the gladiatorial exchanges across the Chamber, all of these were abruptly put into a stark new perspective. Political arguments come and go – and no-one would be foolish enough to claim that they are unimportant – but they are conducted against a backdrop. Within that hinterland is the heart of the democratic ideal; a vision of a society whose business is supremely worth arguing about because it is, ultimately, a community in which we have one focus of belonging.

In a good and just society, we are linked by bonds we cannot always see. We need traditions and institutions that remind us we belong together at some level beyond electoral competition or ideological battles. For it is belonging that makes it worth struggling over granular arguments and local conflicts as we search for a better way to manage our common life with one another.

Constitutional monarchy, as we have known it in this country, is good for democracy

In the United Kingdom, the monarchy is the supreme symbol of that continuing belonging. A symbol of the reality which underpins all of our political arguments. This matters because a single electoral or parliamentary victory, however decisive, is only a moment in the continuing search to do better justice by the given fact of our belonging together. Violently polarized politics, which in effect denies this common agenda in our political action, is a step towards the erosion of politics itself – politics as the business of arguing, discerning, risk-taking, deciding and reviewing how we manage our affairs. Democracy, it has been well said, demands that we do it again and try to do it better, rather than fantasizing that we can arrive at an ideal stage of history.

Hence the paradox that constitutional monarchy, as we have known it in this country, is good for democracy. It declares that not everything is up for renegotiation; that we are all committed, more than we realise, to a system in which a set of symbols that we have not chosen to suit our preferences reminds us that we are linked with one another, before we are divided by opinions and interests.

The late Queen set the highest of standards in honouring this vision and making it a reality. The news of her fatal illness quite understandably silenced the arguments of the legislature because it reminded us of the way in which she had, over her unprecedentedly long reign, persistently stood for this shared agenda of trying to do justice to our belonging, our need of one another and our need to look to after one another’s security and well-being, simply because we are part of one local human community.

Other systems have found other kinds of symbol. But the way in which the Queen not only handled the traditional aspects of her role, but united very different groups in a deep personal loyalty and affection, tells us why the events of September 2022 touched so many hearts - and why we have cause to be grateful for the way in which this national symbol has evolved as it has, through the dedicated and generous personality of a very great monarch.

Dr Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012

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