Piers Morgan on the life and legacy of the late Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen is dead.
Even as I write those words, I can’t quite believe them, and it makes me feel incredibly emotional.
I’ll admit to shedding a tear when the news came through, as I’m sure most people did.
How could we not be hugely moved by this massive, seismic moment in history?
Elizabeth II was Monarch of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth for my entire life.
In fact, she was on the throne for 13 years longer than I’ve been alive.
She was the longest-reigning monarch in British history, and the second longest reigning anywhere in the world only eclipsed by France’s King Louis XI who gained his title at the age of just 4 years old, so doesn’t really compare.
That makes her the undisputed GOAT, the greatest of all time; a monumental, towering royal colossus who is not only the most famous person on Planet Earth, but the most respected.
Her death is thus an enormous blow, not just to the British people but to my nation’s psyche.
It doesn’t matter that she was 96. If anything, her great age, and extraordinarily long tenure, makes this loss even harder to bear.
The Queen carried an aura of invincibility about her.
She was always there, a constant rock of stability in an often tumultuous, fragile and dangerous world.
Through wars, terrorism, natural disasters, and shocking tragedies, she was a stupendously stoic symbol of strength, resilience, hope and inspiration.
Never was this better illustrated than when she addressed Britain at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as the deadly virus was destroying lives as fast as it was destroying economies. It was also a message to the entire world.
‘I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute,’ she said, ‘then we will overcome it. 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 Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and the future.’
In a few brief minutes, when we were all on our knees from anxiety, grief and exhaustion, the Queen once again lifted our spirits, stiffened our resolve, and gave us hope for the future.
That was her greatest quality, always knowing exactly what to say and when to say it.
It’s staggering to think that she was only 26 when she inherited the crown, three years younger than my eldest son.
So much pressure at such a young age, yet from the moment of her coronation, she led this country with a majesty way beyond her years.
Queen Elizabeth was quite simply the finest, most dedicated servant Britain’s ever had.
A woman who devoted her life to duty, putting service to her country above all else.
She was noble, dignified, humble, and intensely private.
Uniquely for world leaders, she never gave a single real interview, preferring to let her actions and few public words speak for her, which they did so powerfully.
She worked strictly to the simple philosophy handed down from her mother, The Queen Mother: ‘Never complain, never explain, and speak rarely in public.’
She never chased celebrity, instead it chased her.
As the reaction to her death shows, she was the biggest star of them all.
I had the honour of meeting the Queen three times.
She was small but robustly sturdy, always perfectly groomed, and deployed that famous fixed regal grin to cover myriad emotions.
Beneath the benign, almost mumsy appearance, lurked a formidably sharp brain and a waspish sense of humour.
‘Do you enjoy hosting your garden parties?’ I once asked her at a Windsor Castle party thrown for British media figures in 2002 – as we looked out over the magnificently tended green fields.
‘Well, Mr. Morgan,’ she replied, ‘let me put it this way: how would YOU like 12,000 complete strangers trampling on YOUR lawn?
Then we both fell about laughing.
I’ve got a photo of that moment and it’s a treasured possession.
The Queen was always supremely calm, especially when everyone else was panicking.
In fact, I only saw her rattled on one occasion, and that was in the dark difficult days after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
The royals decamped to Balmoral in Scotland as the nation descended into grief, and Her Majesty was personally attacked for the first time anyone could remember for refusing to lower the flag at Buckingham Palace, and for making no personal address to the nation.
I spoke to one of her press chiefs at the time, and he said she was like the proverbial rabbit trapped in headlights – unable to rid herself of the rigid formality the royals had always been taught to practice in such times of crisis and personal grief.
I remember writing the headline on the Daily Mirror front page (I was the paper’s Editor at the time): ‘SPEAK TO US, MA’AM, YOUR PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING’. It may seem utterly impertinent now, but in the moment, it accurately reflected the mood of the country.
The next morning, the Queen came back to London, lowered the flag, and spoke to the nation without her famous tiara.
‘I speak as a grandmother,’ she began, and then made one of the greatest and most perfectly pitched speeches I’ve ever heard – sincere, eloquent, moving, direct.
The mood changed instantly, from anger to respect and affection.
And right there, I understood the primary purpose of the Queen – to console, comfort, celebrate with, encourage, and stabilise the people of Great Britain.
And I also understood her brilliant instincts when it came to getting the right message out to the public.
She did it for 70 years and barely ever put a foot, or word, wrong.
During the making of an official royal documentary about her life, entitled Elizabeth R, in 1992, she told the director: “One feels the buck stops here, so to speak. I had a letter this morning. It said: ‘I’ve been going round and round in circles, but you are the only person who can stop the circle.’ I thought that was rather nice.”
In the end, the buck did indeed stop with her. And she stopped a multitude of circles on a daily basis.
An American journalist — she reigned for a third of America’s entire history! — once asked me ‘What is the POINT of the Queen?’ and it was a good question.
She wasn’t an elected official and had no real executive powers like a US president.
But each week she met with her Prime Minister, and the importance of those private encounters, and her influence over those running the country, cannot be overstated.
She had 15 Prime Ministers during her reign, and I’ve spoken to three of them — Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — about her.
All attested to the Queen’s extraordinary wisdom gleaned from meeting every leader for the last 70 years, including 13 US presidents, and surveying every world crisis in that time.
‘There was no problem I encountered that she hadn’t seen before, in some form,’ Blair told me. ‘I found that very comforting.’
‘She’s so intelligent,’ agreed Brown, ‘and never hesitated to challenge me about something if she didn’t agree.’
‘I trusted her instincts better than almost anyone else’s,’ said Thatcher.
I did, too.
The Queen had a remarkable ability to instantly grasp the importance and seriousness of any problem, nationally or globally, and react accordingly.
She was highly intelligent and remarkably well read, and the extraordinary life she led, and the vast array of people she met, gave her tremendous almost unparalleled experience, wisdom, and perspective.
Now, she is gone, and her death couldn’t come at a worse time.
Britain, like much of the world, has been battered by coronavirus, financial crisis, political toxicity, and a new war in Europe.
The very last thing we need in these horrendous times is the loss of our rock, this diminutive but gigantic figurehead who made us all feel everything would be OK.
But she would be the first to tell us to get a grip, dry our tears, and get on with it, as she always did.
For Queen Elizabeth II, the country she loved so much came first, middle and last.
So, as we mourn this phenomenal lady, let’s invoke her spirit.
The only solace is that she us now reunited with her own rock, Prince Philip, and that with the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in the summer, we got the chance to show her how much she meant to us, and to the world.
Thank you for everything, Ma’am.
You were the greatest of Britons who represented the very best of what our country has to offer.