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Elizabeth, Charles and the Changing of the Guard

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The Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace draws more than two million spectators every year and emphasizes the dignity, discipline and continuity associated with the British royal family for nearly a millennium. With the passing of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and the ascension to the throne of her son, now King Charles III, the world will witness more than a shift in personalities but a Changing of the Generations that counts as both sad and significant.

Born in 1926, Elizabeth represented the cohort rightly celebrated as “the Greatest Generation” that sustained the necessary sacrifices to overcome the linked evils of genocidal Naziism, Japanese imperialism and, in the years immediately following the second world war, Soviet Stalinism. For the durable alliance of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the other English-speaking nations, the heroic quality of that global struggle and the ultimate victories can’t be denied or ignored.

Despite her tender age, Elizabeth played a meaningful role in that effort: at age 14, she addressed a worldwide audience on the BBC’s “Children’s Hour” programme, connecting with the millions of British youngsters who had sought refuge from bombings and menace in new, temporary homes in the countryside or overseas. At age 18, she overcame the disapproval of her father, King George VI, and enlisted in the women’s division of the British Army, making her, at the time of her death, the only head of state anywhere in the world to qualify as a World War II veteran. In that context, she also represents the last survivor as a prominent leader of “The Greatest Generation” to leave the stage of history.

Her remarkable longevity and indefatigable service down to the final hours of her life have created an anomalous situation for her oldest son, the new King Charles. At age 73, he can hardly be hailed as an avatar of a fresh new generation. Born in November, 1948, Charles qualifies as a classical Baby Boomer, conceived by his parents after reunification following their respective wartime service, and adding to that population explosion that struck most of the world. He not only fails to qualify as one of the first of his storied generation to come to power – Bill Clinton, who won election as president some 30 years ago, might more plausibly claim that distinction. Charles may, in fact, amount to one of the last boomers to hold a position as a world leader, particularly if he takes after his mother in terms of longevity.

In other characteristics, the British Royal Family dramatically illustrates the dramatic contrast between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers they produced and raised to adulthood. The generational changing of the guard involved a transition from unselfish to indulgent, from “do your duty” to “do your own thing.” The romantic peccadilloes of Charles and his siblings certainly illustrated a different approach to family life when compared to Elizabeth’s 74 years of visibly affectionate, palpably stable marriage to the late Prince Philip.

We have already traveled a great distance from the Boomer heyday of the 1960s and ‘70s when the real British royals seemed to be the Beatles, and their rowdy cousins, the Stones, rather than the stuffy Windsors. As a result, the generational shift at Buckingham Palace doesn’t promise fresh air or rejuvenation as much as it means a Baby Boomer monarch who can’t help but seem out of synch with today’s times before his reign even begins.

The pageantry of the Changing of the Guard ritual, begun by Henry VII in the late 1400s, has always emphasized tradition and pageantry and continuity, not novelty or bold new endeavors. That ceremony, temporarily suspended on the day of the Sovereign’s final illness, will be part of an intensified emphasis on the timeless aspects of the monarchy. Especially in the afterglow of Elizabeth’s epic reign, Britons (and others around the world who wish them well) can repeat without irony the ancient, heartfelt formulation: God Save the King.

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