Shortly before I started high school, the Queen came to visit. She left a lasting impression on the place – partly because of the plaque commemorating the new building she opened, and partly because the school was thoroughly cleaned prior to her visit.
Five years later, when I left, you could still see the clear line on the floor separating the history department (which she had been scrubbed, steamed, and polished through during the Queen’s tour) and the geography and religious studies departments, which had been used during the Queen’s tour. the monarchical tour had been ignored and therefore had not been scrubbed.
It was rumored among students that this was a source of great anger to the head of religious studies, although I am not sure if this has ever been fully confirmed. But maybe it should have been more angry with New Labour. I went to the kind of inner London school New Labor ministers loved to attend—a multiracial community that had been a notorious failure in the early 1990s, but by the turn of the century lawyers, teachers and financial services firms were growing up. producing wax at a prodigious rate. Tony Blair visited at the height of his popularity, but only the Queen deserved a deep clean.
In a way, my school’s unfortunate religious studies classroom mirrored the UK and even the world: A visit from the Queen is worth getting out of the dustpan, but a box-fresh Prime Minister can do it.
The tributes that have poured in from around the world are partly about her long time in office and the way she behaved as a monarch. In a world in constant flux, she embodied a graceful stability. But she was also the last survivor of an era when the people broadly liked their leaders.
In the US, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, there were still plenty enough to hand lopsided electoral wins to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, and enough non-tribal to reject Nixon and the Republicans after Watergate. Faced with what he rightly describes as a threat to American democracy, Joe Biden enjoys lukewarm support at best from an all too small segment of Americans.
When Blair attended my high school, he got an approval score of 20 points. David Cameron, the next opposition leader to take office in his party, was lucky as his approval ratings as prime minister flickered into the low single digits.
Today, Labor’s Keir Starmer, who is arguably the first leader of His Majesty’s Opposition to enter Downing Street, is rated better than the incumbent, Conservative Liz Truss, but still languishes with a net approval score of minus 20.
The same story is set in much of the world. Canada’s Justin Trudeau paid a polished and moving tribute to the Queen and has won three general elections. But he hasn’t won the popular vote since 2015, and has remained prime minister largely because of the Conservatives’ failure to produce a compelling or attractive alternative.
French President Emmanuel Macron has made clever use of his tribute to the Queen to instill affection for the UK, even though the political relationship between his government and Truss’s is in dire straits. But he is also far from popular.
Although King Charles III enjoys a positive approval rating, it is a lot less than his mother’s. There is a real risk that the Queen’s death will mark the end of an era when at least some global figures were loved, and our final entry into an entirely grosser and more cynical era.
The reason the Queen attended my secondary school – and why so many ministers did – was not because they were bored one afternoon in East London and had to fill the time. It was because both the Queen and her ministers recognized that the establishment of an excellent state school is in itself a worthy national undertaking and worthy of celebration.
Something important is lost when a country lacks numbers that are both widely recognized and widely loved. A nation — and even a global community — must be a collective effort to succeed, whether we’re eliminating disease, preventing a nuclear exchange, or tackling climate change. And a certain amount of shared affection and understanding is needed for such an endeavor to succeed.
The UK’s new king is sympathetic in part because he feels less remote. A school friend once told me, very seriously, that Camilla, the queen consort, was a lot like his grandmother because they were both divorced. But I suspect the main reason many Britons are eager to embrace King Charles is that we know that we will lose something very important if there is no one in public life that almost everyone finds at least tolerable.