The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of the United Kingdom’s long 20th century. No other public figure was so intertwined with modern Britain and its self-identity. Throughout the political and economic convulsions of her 70-year reign, the Queen represented stability and continuity in an age of ceaseless innovation and change.
That so many in the UK and beyond have mourned the Queen’s passing reflects not only the length of her rule but the manner and style of it. She embodied qualities that monarchists and republicans alike could admire: dutifulness, humility, civility, common decency, self-restraint and statecraft. During the Covid-19 pandemic, in one of her finest public addresses, the Queen spoke to and for the nation as she drew on her wartime service and vowed, “We will meet again” – an allusion to the 1939 song popularised by Vera Lynn.
Always mindful of the constitutional limits of her role, Elizabeth II avoided direct political interventions. A rare exception came days before the 2014 Scottish independence referendum when she told a well-wisher: “I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” Another was on a 2011 visit to Ireland when she bowed her head in commemoration of those who died fighting British rule – a remarkable moment in the fraught process of reconciliation. After the Queen’s death, Sinn Féin’s leaders, Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald, paid tribute.
“The problem is the Queen is the kind of woman who could vote Social Democratic,” Margaret Thatcher once said to the interviewer Brian Walden. Whether or not this was true, the remark captures something of the essence of her cross-class appeal and instinct for fairness.
King Charles III, who ascends the throne after the longest wait of any heir in British history, faces formidable challenges. As Martin Fletcher writes on page 28, he has been politically indiscreet, making his views known on a variety of issues, including climate change, GM foods, architecture and homoeopathy. His “black spider” memos to government ministers – so called because of his distinctive handwriting – became notorious as he sought to suppress their eventual publication.
As head of state, Charles has pledged to adopt a less interventionist approach. “I’m not that stupid. I do realise it’s a separate exercise being sovereign,” he remarked in a 2018 interview with the BBC. He is also rightly committed to a “slimmed-down” monarchy that jettisons assorted hangers-on in favour of an inner core.
In office, Charles deserves to be held accountable for these promises and scrutinised, not indulged. The recent revelation in the Sunday Times that he accepted a suitcase containing €1m in cash from the former Qatari prime minister has cast further doubt over his judgement.
As King, he will need to earn the loyalty and affection of the public rather than assuming it. Though public support for the monarchy remains robust, it has fallen by 13 percentage points over the past decade to 62 per cent, according to a recent YouGov poll. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, backing for an unelected head of state stands at just 33 per cent (down from 59 per cent in 2011).
The death of the Queen would be disorienting even at a time of stability. But these are no ordinary times: the multinational state is fragmented and, in Liz Truss, the UK has its fourth prime minister in just over six years and an ardent right-wing free marketeer. Brexit Britain is struggling to forge a new international role, and in the 14 Commonwealth countries of which the Queen was head of state her death will prompt renewed discussion of republicanism.
The British economy, meanwhile, is on the verge of recession and households are facing the biggest fall in living standards since records began. The institutions that spanned the Queen’s reign – the NHS, the welfare state, the armed forces, the BBC – are increasingly enfeebled after a decade of austerity. And the future of the 315-year-old Union itself is in doubt as the Scottish government campaigns for a second independence referendum.
No future monarch is likely to command the depths of loyalty and affection that the Queen inspired through her stoic commitment to her role. The Britain of the immediate postwar era that created the conditions for her remarkable reign no longer exists. But as public servants grapple with a divided and restive kingdom, they could do far worse than recall the example and decency of Elizabeth II.
[See also: Leader: The cold reality of Trussonomics]
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession