When Queen Victoria died and flags were lowered to half-mast, her son, the new King Edward VII, in 1901 ordered them back up saying “The Queen is dead. Long live the King.”
It shows the mixed sadness of a sovereign’s death and the happiness of the succeeding sovereign’s ascension. It is that mixed feeling perhaps that made Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke criticize the lowering of Sri Lankan flags ordered by Ranil Wickremesinghe.
I really see no harm in lowering flags. After all, she was our Queen until the Republican Constitution of 1972. Indeed, when a former President dies is it not the decent thing to accord a state funeral with lowered flags, although the President long ceased to be our President?
Indeed Wickremesinghe, Jayatilleke and I belong to a vanishing generation that grew up surrounded by symbols of the late Queen.
We would remember learning our cursive handwriting from copybooks that carried her picture. We carried umbrellas that had her picture in the handle, umbrellas that are now auctioned at $1000 or more. Indeed, street corners had letterboxes with the marking EIIR, for Elizabeth II, Regina. I remember dropping off a letter before 4:45 pm in Nallur in the confidence it would be delivered by 9:00 am in Colombo. Things worked a lot better when she was our Head of State.
The Queen was so admired that when she came to Ceylon in 1954 and went by train to Kandy, my father was Vicar of St. Mary’s Veyangoda. My mother stood at the Veyangoda Railway Station with my brother Rajan who was 5 years old just to wave at her. They were luckier than I because they saw her and her smile clearly. In 1975 when another brother and I stood at Trafalgar Square when she passed by in a carriage for the 25th anniversary of her ascension, it was so crowded that we could make out only her pink dress and moving hand. We went home and viewed her better on TV.
In fact, for several years my wife was made-up with the Elizabethan hairdo shown in the exercise book by her mother who admired the Queen and avidly read “Woman & Home,” a British fashion magazine. The Queen was a style-setter for many middle-class girls till they became marriageable and had to sport longer hair.
For Anglican Christians like me, she was “Defender of the Faith,” a title given in perpetuity by the Pope to Henry VIII and his successors when he wrote a text upholding Catholicism against the then emerging Protestant Heresies. Because the title was in perpetuity, even after Henry VIII quarreled with the Pope, he was entitled to carry the title. At every mass we would Pray “For Elizabeth our Queen.” She lived honourably upholding the title. Prayers for her were stopped in 1972 when we became a republic, although some form of it may have been continued in her capacity as Head of the Commonwealth.
Tamils looked to Elizabeth II when the Trincomalee RAF Airbase was taken over in 1957 immediately after Sinhala Only. Nothing happened because we did not understand the limits of power after independence. Likewise, we had hopes over the Kodeeswaran case and had some happiness when the Privy Council sent the flawed decision back for review. However, that review did not happen after the 1972 Constitution did away with protections of the previous Constitution’s Article 29. So many Tamils, whether Christian or Hindu, have a soft spot for Queen Elizabeth.
Whatever brickbats may be thrown at Elizabeth II, she remains a Queen we loved and was better than many of our subsequent Heads of State.