On 2 June 1953, everyone who lived in our small block of flats crowded into our neighbours’ sitting room across the first-floor landing. They were the only ones who had a television, and had invited us all in to watch the coronation. The adults pushed me gently forward to the front so that I could see the live, black-and-white transmission from Westminster Abbey on the 12-inch screen. I was five years old and it was the first time I had ever seen a TV set. I remember watching the diminutive figure of the Queen, laden with the paraphernalia of royalty – orb, sceptres, a huge, heavy crown and voluminous robes – and surrounded by a phalanx of elderly men dressed in identical gowns and wearing coronets, with the two archbishops kneeling before her. I felt rather sorry for her.
The coronation seemed to mark much more than Britain’s recovery from the perils and privations of the war. The news of the first ever ascent of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, reached the UK on the same day, and the two events were widely trumpeted as the beginning of a new Elizabethan age, though quite what that meant in practice was somewhat obscure. As in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth, we were supposedly living in an age of national expansion. We had triumphed over our enemies in 1945 and now we were entering an era of renewal, building on the Festival of Britain held two years earlier in 1951. With a new, young monarch on the throne and the British empire reinventing itself as the Commonwealth of Nations – many of whose most prominent representatives could be seen making their way in the royal procession to Westminster Abbey – an exciting future beckoned after years of postwar austerity.
The reality, however, was very different. India had already become independent in 1947; other colonies followed in short order during the 1950s and 1960s as what the Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan called the “winds of change” swept across the world. In 1956 came the Suez debacle: Britain, together with France, made a misjudged attempt to take back the Suez Canal zone by force after it had been seized by the nationalist Egyptian regime of Colonel Nasser, and had to withdraw after the Americans made clear their disapproval of this neocolonial adventure. By the 1970s Britain had joined what is now the European Union, effectively transferring its economic and political allegiance away from the now-defunct global British empire to the increasingly important trading bloc on its doorstep.
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The changes of the decades since 1953 have been huge and often unsettling. The empire has gone for good. Britain has sunk to the level of a middle-ranking world power. After leaving the EU, the UK is once more in search of a role. The seemingly solid institutions that held sway at the time of the coronation – the BBC, parliament, the National Health Service, the Church of England, the judiciary – have at times come under sustained attack from the press and government. In British society, deference has given way to social and cultural egalitarianism, and multiculturalism has largely replaced the hierarchies of 70 years ago.
Through all of this, Queen Elizabeth II provided a calm and reassuring presence as head of state, cushioning the British people from the most radical shocks of the new, and providing a guarantee of their national identity and cohesion. Britain would have found it much harder to cope had it been governed by a series of relatively short-term presidents drawn from the world of politics.
The hereditary principle may be objectionable in many ways in a professedly meritocratic society, but in the person of the Queen it provided a strong symbol of continuity across seven decades that no other system could have produced. True, there have been some notably unsuccessful and irresponsible monarchs, from the eccentric William IV (“Silly Billy”) to the self-indulgent and pro-Nazi Edward VIII. But, observing other European countries where elected but powerless individuals have been head of state, it is clear that republicanism is no guarantee of success. The Federal Republic of Germany has experienced 12 heads of state since 1949, discounting acting presidents; but alongside successful figures who could give real moral leadership to the nation, such as Richard von Weizsäcker, there have been individuals who have consistently attracted criticism and even ridicule, such as Heinrich Lübke, who was the butt of many jokes during his inglorious time in office in the 1960s.
In 1948, King Farouk of Egypt, soon to be ejected from his throne by a Colonel Nasser-led coup, declared: “Soon there will be only five kings left – the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts and the King of Diamonds.” How, then, has the British monarchy managed to survive, let alone become so widely revered? Perhaps the most important of its many secrets of success has been Queen Elizabeth’s unwavering refusal to become involved in politics, her insistence on remaining far above it.
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Many European monarchies have fallen as a result of their failure to adapt to constitutional democracy in the 20th century. The authoritarian regimes of the Habsburg monarchy, the German empire and tsarist Russia, for example, were swept away in 1917-18 because they represented social and political systems that refused to accord democratic rights to the majority of their people (defeat in war also undoubtedly played a role). The King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, who had succeeded to the throne in 1900, appointed Mussolini prime minister in 1922 and went along with the fascist regime almost to the end, endorsing its brutalities (including the use of poison gas in Ethiopia); he even accepted the title of Emperor of Ethiopia after Mussolini’s victory there. Here was another monarch who was undermined by defeat in war, but it was not until 1946 that he finally bowed to the inevitable and abdicated, handing over the throne to his son Umberto, who lasted only a few weeks until a referendum delivered a substantial majority in favour of an Italian republic.
King Constantine II of Greece was also removed in a referendum. He had made the mistake of involving himself closely in politics in the mid-1960s, then signing into office the reactionary colonels who overthrew democracy in 1967. He behaved inconsistently, leading an attempted counter-coup whose failure caused him to flee the country. There followed several years of dictatorship, with opponents of the regime imprisoned, tortured and murdered. By the time democracy was restored in 1974, Constantine had alienated almost everybody and the Greek monarchy paid the price.
This is where the Queen’s resolute avoidance of political intervention carried a risk, for what happens if the government itself threatens democracy, as Boris Johnson’s did when it asked her to prorogue parliament in September 2019 in order to push through his hard Brexit? Fortunately, she was rescued by the Supreme Court, which declared the move illegal. But while both the Italian and Greek monarchies were damaged beyond repair by their association with violent dictatorships, Johnson’s government was elected by a large majority, which made it much harder to resist. Refusing to sign the prorogation order would have plunged the monarchy into a crisis of major proportions.
The remaining European monarchies, in Scandinavia and Benelux, have generally avoided political entanglements, though the absence of a government in Belgium from 2018 to 2020 inevitably brought the monarchy into play.
In contrast to the “bicycling” Scandinavian monarchs, the Queen has maintained the elaborate ceremonial and pageantry of the British monarchy, realising that this was an important aspect of Britain’s projected image. The monarchy brightened up people’s lives with its spectacle and colour, which reassured the British that while the world around them was changing, the old traditions remained the same. This was in many ways an illusion: much of the ceremonial was an “invented tradition” of one kind or another. Events such as the shambolic coronation of Queen Victoria, or the chaotic scenes at the coronation of King George IV, when his estranged wife Queen Caroline was forcibly prevented from entering Westminster Abbey, were a world away from the carefully choreographed ritual seen at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and which can be expected again at the coronation of King Charles III.
At the same time, the Queen also did a great deal to bring the monarchy closer to the people. True, after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the Palace failed to appreciate the depth of public feeling, and caused considerable resentment by its failure to behave as people in the country thought appropriate. It was only after Tony Blair’s intervention that the Queen, perhaps reluctantly, embraced the wave of emotion that had threatened to destabilise the monarchy. But this was a rare misstep, and the royal family paid for it by having to listen to the coruscating condemnation of its behaviour by Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, at her funeral in Westminster Abbey. Since then, the Palace has made serious efforts to acquire more of the common touch and divest itself of the more obvious trappings of inherited superiority.
This was, in truth, a greater problem for her Court than for the Queen herself. Despite her obvious anchoring in the culture of the British upper class, with its aristocratic pursuits from horse-racing to polo, she had a genuine interest in individuals from all walks of life. She knew how to put people at their ease, leavening her conversation with wry humour. Keeping her private person carefully concealed from public view, she weathered the many scandals unleashed by members of her family, garnering more sympathy than blame. During her reign she spoke to hundreds of thousands of people, and had a knack of making everyone feel she was speaking to them personally, as indeed she was.
King Charles’s first days on the throne suggest he has learned these lessons well. His decision to talk to the crowds outside Buckingham Palace was widely appreciated. By openly displaying his emotions in speaking about his mother’s death, he has won the sympathy of millions. And he has said he will abandon the kind of political interventions he made during his decades as heir to the throne.
The new King has had decades to prepare for his accession, and he must have a clear idea of how he wants to take things forward. Whatever the rules and conventions may be, it seems obvious that the bloated ranks of the royal family need some thinning down. The immense wealth of the family is perhaps too conspicuous at a time when millions are facing what may well be the most serious economic hardship of their lifetime; the Queen and her staff did not acquit themselves well by lobbying so hard behind the scenes to preserve it.
Does the royal family really need quite so many palaces? Should there be reforms to the Civil List or the royal prerogative? Will Commonwealth countries, especially in the Caribbean and indeed Australia, take the opportunity to end the British monarch’s role as head of state? Is Scotland going to stay in the Union?
The Queen’s legacy and example live on, but the certainty she provided has ended. Change is coming to Britain and to its monarchy’s role in the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and the world – and it may be coming faster than anyone expects.
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession