From Empire to Nation: The Death of the Queen and the Road Ahead

By Mark Connolly

As Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was laid to rest last week after a period of national mourning, we can officially declare the second Elizabethan Age over. It is hard to grasp exactly what that means relative to other historical markers. When she was born in 1926, Ford’s Model T, the world’s first mass-produced automobile was in its infancy, and Charles Lindbergh was yet to make the first ever flight across the Atlantic. Just two years before her birth, a fringe political activist and WWI veteran named Adolf Hitler was released from prison, yet to take his place in the history books. Her first Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, was born almost exactly one hundred years before her final one, Liz Truss. By the end of her life, the world she left behind was genuinely unrecognisable from the one she entered. This is all the more astonishing given that this was the experience of so many millions who belonged to her generation.

It would be wrong to say that the monarchy has remained totally unchanged through this period. In 1952, the British state was far more dependent on the monarch as the lynchpin of its constitution. Since then, the Prime Minister has become a de facto head of state, in a centralisation of power away from Buckingham Palace and towards Downing Street. It was this very feature – the Queen’s ability to at least appear separate from the political vicissitudes of the day – that broadened her appeal across every sect and class in the country. Indeed, the cultural transformation and the rise of celebrity has been perhaps one of the most striking changes to the function of monarchy: the coverage of Elizabeth and Phillip’s 1947 honeymoon, then seen as an egregious invasion of privacy, would pale in comparison to the intense daily media scrutiny faced by the next generation – by the Prince and Princess of Wales William and Catherine, but more acutely by Harry and Meghan. Such changes must have been unimaginable to anyone born in 1926.

But it was her status as the first post-imperial Queen that made Elizabeth’s reign truly remarkable. According to their official titles, previous monarchs had ruled over “Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the seas”; Elizabeth II, by contrast, governed a unitary state known as the United Kingdom. This is not to say that decolonisation directly coincided with her accession to the throne. It retained many territories across Africa, and its violent repression of Kenyan rebels during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s showed clearly that Britain’s days of imperial aggression were far from over.
But nonetheless, by the 21st-century the “British family of nations” that (then-Princess) Elizabeth had referred to in a 1947 address to the Empire, was gone. This isn’t the remarkable part: decolonisation has been the trend for decades (despite obvious exceptions in the United States and Russia). What is truly astonishing is the apparent resilience of the monarchy through these last seventy years.

When future historians come to trace the lineage of the modern British state, they will marvel at the fact the U.K. survived so long after the fall of empire. The United Kingdom exists purely as a product of empire – indeed, Scotland only signed the 1707 Treaty of Union for the promise of British imperial spoils following the failure of their own venture in the Darien scheme of the 1690s. To a country which for centuries depended upon its overseas colonies for its sense of self, this century of decolonisation would likely have been enough to tear modern Britain apart. Other European nation states has a more clearly-defined national origin story: Italy had Garibaldi, Germany had Bismarck. In the post-imperial world, perhaps the only thing which held the new United Kingdom together was its last surviving link to its colonial past – Queen Elizabeth II.

It is in this context that we should understand the national outpouring of grief. Yes, the last week has seen some of the most truly bizarre tributes, from McDonald’s screens emblazoned with the late Queen’s portrait, to a Met Office refusing to report the weather out of “respect”. But for the many who find such gestures baffling, even distasteful, to simply dismiss these cases as absurd is to ignore a fundamentally important point, which is that people need a source of meaning in their lives. For better or for worse, people have looked to the monarchy and specifically to the Queen herself as a source of legitimacy, the link between an imperial past and a post-imperial present, whose presence through such astonishing changes and improvements to the lives of people at home and abroad has acted as a handrail to a nation ascending the staircase of progress. She derived her authority from Britain, while Britain drew a sense of meaning from her. For seventy years, there has existed a relationship of mutual dependence between monarch and nation, and there can be no minimising the tangible sense of loss now that this relationship is over.

And herein lies the problem now facing the new head-of-state, King Charles III: he is not the figure his mother was. Where many looked to Elizabeth as the grandmother of the nation, few will see Charles quite as favourably, between serious allegations of corruption, the remaining loyalty of many Britons to the late Princess Diana, and the implication of his brother Prince Andrew in the most notorious sex scandal in living memory – a fact which, of course, bears no relation to Charles’ personal integrity, but which nonetheless makes many uncomfortable. Worse still, while Elizabeth had seven decades to establish herself in the national psyche, Charles does not have time on his side.

Support for the monarchy remains high – between seventy and eighty per-cent according to most polls – but only time will tell if this was down to the undoubtedly impressive charisma of a single woman, and whether it will crumble under the new regime apparently less in-touch. It was remarkable that a polity bruised by the loss of its imperial possessions and global status survived the reign of one monarch; it would take someone truly special to ensure it survives a second.

Of course, it is worth saying that the monarchy is far from the only institution contributing to whatever remains of Britain’s sense of legitimacy. The BBC, the Armed Forces, and perhaps most of all the NHS have all been pillars of the British state since the start of decolonisation. But these, too, appear to be in decline: the future of the BBC licence fee looks doubtful; whatever investment commitments have been made by the incoming Truss government, Britain’s military is undoubtedly weaker than it has been; and, despite public sentiment, the NHS has been increasingly subject to creeping privatisation under governments of both parties.

And in the absence of strong national institutions, the death of the Queen serves as another stark reminder of generational change. The long-touted post-war ‘consensus’ was built upon the shared lived experience of millions through the horrors of the bloodiest war in our history. With the passing of Elizabeth II, it is difficult not to reflect on the shrinking pool of those who remember the 1940s. This cornerstone of our national history will soon no longer be in the realm of memory, but consigned to the history textbooks instead.

The basic fact is that Britain is not where it was the last time the Crown changed hands. From when Attlee’s Labour government was elected in 1945 with the aim of building a “socialist British commonwealth,” living standards consistently rose, relations between labour and capital remained largely positive (that is, until Thatcher took the reins in 1979), and consent for the system was retained far more than one would have expected given the circumstances.

But look at where we are now: after a summer of industrial unrest and a decade of austerity targeted primarily at the poorest and most vulnerable, Scotland is closer than ever to secession from the union, and with inexorable rise of Sinn Fein on both sides of the border, a similar situation could emerge soon in Ireland. Regardless of its substance, the sense felt by many that the death of our longest-reigning monarch represents some kind of deep and personal loss may just be the catalyst which accelerates these processes.

For now, it is worth reflecting on the incredible changes which took place over the seventy years of Elizabeth’s reign – whether one is a monarchist or a republican or somewhere in between. It is not a political statement but an important historical observation that the myth of conservatism – that nothing changes in the long-run – has been sustained by the utterly unique set of circumstances which put a twenty-five-year-old on the throne and allowed her to reign for seven decades. With the demographic changes of the 21st-century, it is unlikely we will ever see this again.

For now, the system as it stands can enjoy a brief respite. King Charles will initially be given the benefit of the doubt by his subjects, whose devotion to the late Queen has seen support for separatist movements dwindle somewhat. In addition, it would be reckless to bet against Charles’ ability to hold the system together. His seventy-three year wait for the throne amounts to the longest internship in history, and this lifetime of preparation will serve him well in navigating the challenges ahead. Of course, the tensions remain – strong republican movements in Australia, Jamaica, and elsewhere will force the conversation in a new direction, and although these movements will struggle to move the dial in the short-term, it is not something that can long be avoided or ignored.

The often-misquoted French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr told us that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” and, given the staggering longevity of the modern monarchy, he at least appears to have been right. But if history teaches us anything, it is that nothing is unassailable – not even Britain’s unwritten constitution. The transition from empire to nation-state has almost exactly coincided with the reign of a woman whose remarkable likeability has helped many, if not all, come to terms with decline. The death of Her Majesty the Queen is therefore an event of monumental historical importance, just not for the reasons the royal correspondents would have you believe.

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