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9 September 2022

The death of the Queen marks the final break with imperial Britain

Her reign was a link to a country still in the twilight of empire.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In April 1947 Princess Elizabeth, as she was then, delivered a radio address from Cape Town on her 21st birthday. Today it is best known as a canonical expression of the sense of duty that would go on to mark her reign: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service, and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” But it is also an artefact of a distant world in which an heir to the British throne could make such a dedication to “our great imperial family” with, as she said, “the whole Empire listening” and entreat that still living and breathing global empire to “save itself after the battle is won”. 

That reality was already beginning to slip even then. At the time Elizabeth was the daughter of the Emperor of India, a title her father would relinquish in August that same year on the declaration of Indian and Pakistani independence. As the historian David Edgerton writes in his The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, “by the time she was crowned in 1953, the implied unitary empire had already gone”. Elizabeth II ascended to the throne as an increasingly post-imperial monarch.

Yet for the duration of her reign, long as it proved to be, the Queen would remain a human link with that old imperial Britain – the original global Britain – and the virtues and principles, real and imagined, of that country and its empire. Her death is a rupture: a breaking of that final living connection with a reality that is simultaneously long-gone and yet still defining of Britain today and the uncertainties of its future in the world. Those uncertainties will doubtless assume new acuity as the country comes to terms with the end of the second Elizabethan age and what lies beyond.

The precise details of the Queen’s funeral are yet to be publicly confirmed but it is expected that the gun carriage bearing her coffin into Westminster Abbey will be drawn by sailors of the Royal Navy. That has been the case at royal funerals since that of Victoria in 1901, a tradition speaking of the close relationship between monarchy, navy and empire at the heart of British history since the first Elizabethan age.

It was in that transitional age, between the loss of England’s last continental possession (Calais, in 1558) and the foundation of its first permanent colony in the New World (Jamestown, in 1607), that the English state adopted the two-part strategy that would define it, and subsequently the United Kingdom, for the next centuries. First, play off European powers against each other to prevent the emergence of a continental hegemon with the strength to cross the Channel; and second, use the peace and stability that first strategy guaranteed to turn towards the oceans, and the acquisition of the naval supremacy needed to establish, and maintain control of, a global merchant empire.

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That was the Britain into which Elizabeth was born into in April 1926, only five years after the British Empire had reached its territorial peak. It was a country defined by imperial capitalism, the trading ports and networks spanning the globe, and imperial power, the web of military force on which these networks relied.

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Her grandfather sat on the throne as George V, “By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the British Dominions behind the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India”. At the cabinet table of Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, sat not just a foreign secretary but a secretary of state for India and a secretary of state for the colonies. British naval bases speckled the world map, from Malta, Bermuda and Cape Town to Aden, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Singapore.

That year, 1926, British gunboats sailed up the Yangtze River and fired on the city of Wahnsien (now Wanzhou) during a trade dispute. It was also the year George Orwell, four years into his service as an imperial police officer in British-controlled Burma (now Myanmar), moved to Moulmein where, he would later recall, “I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me”. The following year brought the publication of Admiral GA Ballard’s book Rulers of the Indian Ocean, blithely asserting that “it would be helpful to continued progress of civilisation throughout the eastern hemisphere that the supremacy of [British naval power in the Indian Ocean] should long remain effective”. 

While much of this world was fading by the time Elizabeth II acceded to the throne aged 25 in 1952, it is striking how much of it endured well into the first years of her reign. At the time of her coronation the following year much of the western littoral of the Indian Ocean still belonged to the British Empire: from what is now the United Arab Emirates via Oman and Yemen to Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. In Africa one could travel by land from the Sahara to the Cape without leaving British colonies and dominions. The Empire still encompassed such colonies as Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Cyprus, Malta and Nigeria. Most became independent only in the 1960s.

The Queen’s early reign was marked by fundamentally Victorian and Edwardian figures, products of imperial Britain in its pomp. Winston Churchill, her first prime minister, was born in 1874 and first experienced war not during World War One or even the Boer War but in 1897 as a journalist covering the Mohmand rebellion (an ancestor group of today’s Taliban) on the north-western frontier of what was then British India. Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, the Queen’s first private secretary, was born in 1887 and had served as aide-de-camp to the governor of Bombay. Her first Australian prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, was born in 1894 and proudly described himself as “British to the bootstraps”. 

In matters economic, too, the old imperial Britain was not yet gone. With Europe still sweeping up the rubble of war, the country relied on its old imperial networks for much of its trade. British trading capitalism remained, as Edgerton puts it, “at least into the 1960s one of the three main capitalisms in the world”. This was a time before deindustrialisation set in, when northern cities such as Liverpool were still strongholds of the Conservative Party, which under Churchill had returned to power nationally in 1951 on a manifesto pledging: “To foster commerce within the Empire we shall maintain Imperial Preference. In our home market the Empire producer will have a place second only to the home producer.”

These early years of the second Elizabethan age coincided with the first moves on the continent towards what would become the European Union, with the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 and that of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. Britain sat this out, not out of any passionate opposition, but rather a placid, near-default assumption that this continental initiative was not something for oceanic, imperial Britain. (“Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea,” was how Churchill put it to Charles de Gaulle on the eve of D-Day in 1944). Hugo Young’s history of post-war Britain’s place in Europe, This Blessed Plot, describes how the decision in 1950 not to join the ECSC the following year had “caused barely a tremor in the British body politic”. 

These instincts – and indeed Churchill’s quote – would return to haunt Britain when it belatedly sought membership of the EEC. In 1963 now-President de Gaulle opposed the country’s application on the grounds that it was a land of traders not farmers, “insular, maritime and linked by her exchanges, her markets and her supply routes to the most diverse and often the farthest-flung nations”. If rather sniffy, it was an apt description, albeit one that better suited Britain at the time of the coronation than the fast-changing, post-imperial country ten years into Elizabeth II’s reign.

The Queen was not a political figure. The central feat of her reign was the steely discipline with which she obeyed the strictures of Britain’s constitutional order over seven decades of tumultuous change. But she was a symbol with political resonance, most of all as an anchor tethering a country evolving farther and farther away from what it had been in the early 1950s to that time and what had come before.

To be sure, that old imperial world lived and lives on in certain aspects of British life. The experience of maritime empire shaped the fabric of the country, much of which remains today. To a foreigner visiting with fresh eyes, perhaps the most immediately obvious thing about Britain is the fundamentally and distinctly Victorian-Edwardian-Interwar character of its cities, buildings and institutions. In his excellent book The Great British Dream Factory, the historian Dominic Sandbrook demonstrates how many of the personalities and tropes of British popular culture are rooted in the imagination of the old imperial Britain (James Bond is essentially a Victorian adventurer in the Flashman mould, Harry Potter draws on Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Dr Who is one long tribute to HG Wells).

[See also: Will Charles be the last King of Scotland?]

This old Britain shaped how Brits see themselves and their national traits, and how some outsiders see them too. Writing in 2015 about the deep roots of Britain’s complex relationship with continental Europe, the veteran German foreign correspondent Thomas Kielinger observed: “Great Britain hails from a maritime history, it is deeply ingrained in the nation’s DNA. The laws on land are different from those on the high seas, where the ever-changing conditions of wind and weather call for adaptability and flexibility.” The Queen’s stoical and reserved manner made her a yet-better personification of such aspects of the country’s image and self-image. Cultural, linguistic and historical links to the former territories of the Empire embodied by the monarchy probably helped Britain adapt to a diverse, multi-ethnic population – including large numbers of arrivals from those former colonies – better than most other Western countries. 

Yet the longer the second Elizabethan era went on, the more distant that old Britain and that old world it inhabited became. The colonies won their independence, the country integrated with the European continent, imperial-era industries gave way to services and new socio-economic divides, a stoical maritime national demeanour gave way to something more individualistic and raucous. The old imperial economic networks proved of relatively modest commercial use (India today imports more from Belgium than from the UK). Progressive social change brought a long-overdue questioning of whitewashed narratives about the British Empire and the many dark chapters of its history. Brexit, an expression of that distinctiveness Kielinger and De Gaulle identified, is yet to generate the buccaneering national renewal promised at the time of the 2016 referendum. National identity and sub-identities, including the future of the very Union that had built Britain into a global power, have come under new stress as the spectre of fragmentation looms.

As the country has changed, so the appeal and distinctiveness of a national figurehead still rooted in past certainties has grown. It is perhaps no surprise that the public showed greatest ambivalence towards the Queen in the 1990s, the decade of the supposed End of History and of a new post-Thatcher, Cool-Britannia-shaped (and it turned out, hubristic) burst of national self-confidence. It is similarly logical that her popularity would roar back as the turmoil of the 2000s, 2010s and the early 2020s turned the country back to, not nostalgia per se, but a reengagement with the questions of where it had come from, what it used to be and what it ought to be now. Elizabeth II was a last defence against a sort of nation-level, post-imperial phantom limb syndrome, that experience of sensation in parts of the body no longer attached.

Now she is gone and her reign, a prominent part of Britain’s present for the entire lives of most of its current population, has passed on to the history books. A last living link with the country’s late- and immediately post-imperial past, with the Britain of Churchill and Baldwin, Lascelles and Orwell, lives no more. It seems almost too obvious to note that her death coincides with a period of particularly intense uncertainty and angst about the country’s place in the world, its economic model, its identity and future constitution, and indeed about the future of the monarchy itself (already wobbling in some of its last remaining realms) and the Commonwealth. 

An end of an era, then. But also the affirmation of the passing of an era that largely took place decades ago. This moment will be marked ceremonially over the coming days in tributes and the pageantry of the coming funeral and coronation. Once that is past, however, and the reign of King Charles III is firmly underway, a time of national reassessment and readjustment surely looms.

[See also: Andrew Marr: the Queen’s death will shake us all]