Amid all the nonsense, hagiography and persiflage is that is going to be written about the late Elizabeth Mary Alexandra Saxe-Coburg-Gotha—aka Queen Elizabeth II—over the coming days and weeks, let me get my oar in early and single out one really remarkable skill she had that never gets enough attention.
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More importantly, it’s one of the few life and career skills she displayed during her amazing 70-year reign that is actually useful for the rest of us. For people like you and me, who don’t have palaces, courtiers, or state dinners with the emperor of Japan.
In a nutshell: She knew how to shut up.
Or, to put it a little more nicely, she knew how to be discreet, keep her lips zipped, and her thoughts to herself.
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I write this as someone who is so far from having this skill that I can’t even imagine it. My teachers called me “motormouth” when I was in primary school—and that was in New York in the 1970s, when pretty much everyone in class talked like John McEnroe.
Do I wish I had Queen Elizabeth’s discretion? You bet.
If you think a privileged monarch like Queen Elizabeth had everything easy, just indulge for a second in a quick thought experiment. Imagine you had to spend the next 70 years meeting thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people, day upon day, week upon week, year upon year. You had to meet these people and make polite conversation with them, one after another You couldn’t skip out if you felt ill, or tired or fed up. Resignation or retirement were not options.
Now try to imagine doing that—and never, not once, dropping a major gaffe or a clanger.
And I’m not even talking about the kind of missteps we associate with, say, Joe Biden, who once invited a guy in a wheelchair to stand up and accept a round of applause.
You think it’s easy? It’s impossible.
For Queen Elizabeth it was even harder than that. She had to stand by and watch as a string of utterly incompetent and useless British governments trashed one of the greatest political legacies in history. She had to say nothing, as they bungled the dismantling of the empire, dropped the chance to shape the European Community to their liking, and presided over the total destruction of an industrial base once called the “workshop of the world.”
In less than 30 years Britain went from ruling a quarter of the globe to begging the IMF for a bailout. The queen had no political power. She didn’t get to choose the governments. And during all that time she had to zip her lip, time and again.
Her reign began with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It ended with Liz Truss—someone who says it is a “disgrace” that the British eat so much French cheese, and who thinks barking patrol dogs can scare away enemy drones. And yet there she was on Tuesday, dying, but still smiling sweetly and graciously as she invited Ms. Truss to form a government.
Could you do that? Could I? (Don’t ask.)
People may guess about her political opinions—because of who she was they assumed she was conservative—but she never voiced them. She was thought not to get on with Mrs. Thatcher. There is no evidence she preferred Conservative prime ministers to Labour ones. She apparently got on very well with Barack Obama, a U.S. president who was (understandably, given the Kenyan connection) no great fan of Britain. Despite the rumors and speculation, still no one knows what she thought of Brexit.
The only clanger I can remember Queen Elizabeth dropping was when she publicly referred to 1992, when Charles and Diana separated and Windsor Castle caught fire, as an “annus horribilis,” a horrible year. It was a gaffe because nobody wants to hear about your troubles, least of all if you’re the queen. She broke what is said to be the golden rule of the royal family: “Never complain, never explain.” But other than that, she kept a clean sheet.
The reason this is so relevant today to the rest of us is because of this appalling wave of hyper politicization that has swept over our society. (You can thank the calamitous internet.) Wherever you are, there’s a good chance you operate now in an office, and maybe a social environment, where it can be highly risky to voice any opinion, least of all a dissenting one. heaven forbid you should be guilt of Wrongthink. Such is the way of unemployment, “cancellation” and the social gulag.
A friend who grew up in Albania under the communist dictators tells me that America today reminds him a bit of what it was like back then. You have to watch what you say. It is, as a general rule, better these days just to agree publicly with everyone else and keep your real thoughts to yourself. (He also says that if I had been living in Albania back then I’d have been shot by the government—probably while still in school.)
In the circumstances, the only safe thing to say is to say nothing at all. Queen Elizabeth managed it for 70 years, while still talking amiably to thousands of people. It’s a skill the rest of us may need to master.