Queen Elizabeth, Approximately

Queen Elizabeth II is here, and today she spoke about peace. She said, in her speech at the United Nations, “the waging of peace is the hardest form of leadership of all.” Given the length of her time as a leader, and the breadth of what she has seen, this is notable. Yet the current Queen’s mother, the late Queen Mother, also saw a great deal in her lifetime, a full century's worth of wars and peaces, and she was known not only for her unique resilience and perhaps emblematic British fortitude (famously refusing to leave London in wartime) but also for her considerable charms. William Shawcross’s recent—official—biography of the Queen Mother, The Queen Mother, reinforces the resonance of a powerful monarch, especially during a nation’s most trying times.

Shawcross has an interesting history, too. His father, Hartley William Shawcross, Baron Shawcross, was the lead British prosecutor for the Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal. Whether or not the specific politics of the son were inherited from the father is beside the point when considering the latter’s literary output, and accomplishments. The book charts not only a life but an era, and one which, while contiguous to our own, was vastly different. More formal. More complex?

It is tradition that an “official” biographer is chosen for a monarch, and Shawcross was initially considered an odd selection given his renown as a left-wing journalist. His book is interesting to consider given our current times, and the life of the Queen Mother (like the life of her daughter the Queen) is—whatever your views about the place of a monarchy in contemporary times may be—illuminating. Monarchs necessarily possess a historical perspective on what it means to be a leader, and on what it means to impact a culture's values. There is something unchanging in the value system of a monarchy; does this make it a model, if only in that sense?

This official video of the Queen Mother’s wedding is a channel to another time—grander, which is not to say better. It is an emblem of an era, one when symbols of leadership were neatly articulated. Now, our leaders have more room for nuance—and lateral flexibility—regarding how they conduct themselves. Does this make it any easier to lead? Does it make aspiring to lead a less valuable pursuit? “The waging of peace” is an elegant phrase, and one which merits acknowledging when spoken in the country of a most articulate leader in a time of war.

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