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The longest serving member of the House of Commons remembers the queen


We're going to bring in another perspective now, that of Sir Peter Bottomley. He's a senior member of Parliament and holds the title Father of the House. He has held the longest uninterrupted service in the House of Commons, serving since 1975. Sir Peter was just a little boy when Queen Elizabeth began her reign, and he still remembers her coronation.

PETER BOTTOMLEY: I was 8. My mother brought my sister and myself out the way that the procession was going to come from Buckingham Palace to go down to Westminster Abbey. We got ourselves periscopes - little sort of cardboard tubes with a mirror at one end and a mirror at the other so you could look over the heads of grown-up people. And when they passed, I walked 2 1/2 miles back across London by myself to the local vicar, the minister of religion, who had just bought or had a black-and-white television set. And I was able to watch the rest of the coronation on that.

MARTIN: Seventy years. I mean, she was the only monarch that most Britons ever knew. It leaves an indelible mark on the British psyche, her passing, as evidenced by the miles of people who are waiting all weekend to pay their respects.

BOTTOMLEY: It's true that enormous numbers of people have come for paying their respects to her lying in state in the Great Hall of Westminster, from which she's moved to Westminster Abbey before going on to Windsor. Some of it is curiosity. Most of it is love. And so many people - it's a memory.

MARTIN: If I may ask a personal question, what does the loss feel like to you?

BOTTOMLEY: It's a transition rather than a loss. I think I felt the way I did when my father died. It was a life well lived. It may be a matter for tears, but not sadness. And also, there's a dedication to try to go on with King Charles, making it possible for our country to go on improving. And I explain to people that we have a monarchy because it's a democratic choice. If we didn't want a monarchy, we would have had a revolution. If we didn't want a monarchy, the Parliament would vote to abolish its rule. We haven't. So she was there by choice. King Charles is there by choice. And we can presume that William and George will follow on.

MARTIN: For a lot of people from former colonies, the queen didn't just represent values that were considered aspirational. She represented an exploitative, brutal, imperial rule. What do you say to them?

BOTTOMLEY: I can see that people can say the British Empire was not perfect. That's true. I can also see the consequences that other people experienced. So, for example, 50 years ago, Idi Amin threw tens of thousands of Ugandan Asians out of Uganda, one of the most racist attacks on innocent people the world has known in peacetime. I'm not sure they'd necessarily think that the British rule was worse than what Idi Amin and Milton Obote gave them. But on the day of the queen's funeral, we can recognize that most decisions about decolonization are ones for Parliament and politics, not for the head of state.

MARTIN: The nation of Antigua and Barbuda recently called on a referendum to decide on removing the British monarch as head of state. Do you believe the Commonwealth of Nations will endure in this new era without Queen Elizabeth?

BOTTOMLEY: The Commonwealth will certainly endure. The answer in endurance is clearly yes. If you take places like Australia, which I'd expected to become a republic years and years ago - didn't when they had a referendum because what they chose to replace it was less popular than going on with the Commonwealth queen, now king. So I think there isn't really a problem. One can have a good argument for all of these things in good time.

MARTIN: You were the second MP, after the Speaker of the House, who swore an oath of loyalty to King Charles. You've watched him prepare for this role his entire adult life. Who do you believe he will be as monarch?

BOTTOMLEY: By chance, he and I were at the same college, at the same university, two or three years apart. I think he'll help guide future prime ministers into making decisions which are more likely to be successful and less likely to be failures without becoming controversial.

MARTIN: But the public knows far more about him than they did his mother, right? I mean, of course there were all the scandals related to his marriage to Princess Diana. But the public knows also what issues he cares about because he was allowed to advocate in a way his mother never did. Does knowing more about him make him more vulnerable to criticism?

BOTTOMLEY: I don't think knowing something about somebody makes them vulnerable. The fact is things happen. And I think that you need to be able to march forward, as well as being aware that you could have done things better in the past. That certainly applies to me as a member of Parliament. Can I be more of the good person I could be in the future? I think he will be, and I think he'll help us to do the same ourselves to make the country better.

MARTIN: When you think of her legacy, how did she make a difference? What did she accomplish? What did she, Elizabeth, bring to the monarchy?

BOTTOMLEY: The simplest answer is the dedication to service. It's not like being head of a university for five or 10 years. It's not like being chief executive of a company for two years or 18 years. It's a lifelong dedication, and she showed it could be done. You have to have endurance. You have to have fortitude, and you have to know that there's a higher cause you're working for rather than just personal popularity.

MARTIN: But it sounds like you're saying what she achieved was survival.

BOTTOMLEY: Well, that's certainly true that she achieved survival as - the same way that King Charles, as heir, did the same thing. But if you start saying, is it because of her that we're far more tolerant on race or sexual orientation? No, but she's gone along with that. And I don't think anyone can say she disrespects the difficulties other people go through. In fact, there are plenty of examples where her personal kindnesses to people have made a difference in people's lives. So I think I'd look to the small things as well as the big things and just say that we were to ask God to bless the queen, but now God save the king.


MARTIN: Sir Peter Bottomley, the longest serving member of the House of Commons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "REVERSING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.