Nearly everything I’ve read about the passing of Queen Elizabeth II contains the phrase “the end of an era.”
The thought is indeed true, but the idea begs for a deeper and broader exploration. I think the death of Elizabeth R is, finally, the end of the twentieth century.
We count eras in two ways: literally, and in terms of the spirit of an age.
What we call “the sixties,” for example, didn’t start until at least 1965 — perhaps not even until the 1967 “summer of love” — and didn’t end until April 30, 1975, when the last American helicopter left the last roof in Saigon on the day that town became known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Likewise, spiritually speaking, the twentieth century didn’t end at that absurdly hyped moment of “Y2K.”
I think it ended on Sept. 8, 2022, when the Queen — born two years before the introduction of commercially sliced bread, brought up by figures born and raised in the 19th century, and responsible for footprints in the snow alongside Churchill, Eisenhower, Gandhi, JFK, the Beatles, the astronauts of Apollo, Reagan and Thatcher — drew her last breath.
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But the point isn’t simply quantitative — that is to say, the century in which the bulk of her life and reign was spent as measured on a calendar — but rather qualitative, in the nature of her character and values the world believed her to embody.
For example, when Queen Elizabeth spoke to the people of the United Kingdom in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, she said:
“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve, and of fellow-feeling, still characterize this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future…
“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.“
The message harkened back to the dark but determined, and ultimately triumphant, days of Britain standing alone against Hitler; days that are rightly branded as the nation’s “finest hour.”
In this speech, the Queen was saying, just as Senator Bob Dole (1923–2021) said when he addressed his age as a political issue when accepting the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1996:
“Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action. And to those who say it was never so, that America’s not been better, I say you’re wrong. And I know because I was there. And I have seen it. And I remember.”
The passing of the Queen, the last world leader who could say “I remember” about nearly the entirety of a century which boasts both the most progress for humanity and the greatest scale of inhumanity in all of history, closes the book on that time.
The great unease and sadness her passing has occasioned in so many millions is because we do not know, and have reasons to fear, whether the 21st century will be propelled more by the virtues the Queen’s life reflected, and thus lead to more of the monumental progress of the last century, or by the vices we see abroad in the world today, and thus lead to more of the monumental evils of the last.
Time will tell, but what we know today is as much as one person, one life, can contribute to the outcome of an age for all the world, Queen Elizabeth did. She gave us principles by which to be guided. Hers was a life well lived. A blessed rest earned.
Craig Snyder is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute National Security Program and former President of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.