News of Queen Elizabeth’s death was not wholly unexpected. She lived to the great age of 96. After enjoying markedly good health for so long, the oldest monarch in British history had recently appeared more fragile. She had understandably become a more private woman since the death of Prince Philip last year and had been less publicly visible, undertaking lighter duties. All of us knew that this moment was approaching.
It arrives nevertheless as a national shock, but also as a shared moment of reflection, and as the start of a new and unwritten chapter for the British monarchy and the country itself. The Queen’s death brings personal loss for those close to her, and she had also been a constant presence in millions of lives. The longest monarchical reign in British history, stretching more than 70 years, is over. But the record book is less important than the widely shared sense of what has now slipped away, never to return.
The Queen’s life spanned the entire history of modern Britain. She was born when Britain ruled a global empire of some 600 million people. She died when Britain was a medium-sized northern European country with an uncertain future. She came into the world before all British adults had the vote. At 10, she witnessed the abdication of her uncle that made her heir to the throne. At 14, she lived through the existential threat to the nation that followed the fall of France. As monarch, her first prime minister was Winston Churchill, who had participated in a cavalry charge at Omdurman in 1898, yet she had already been on the throne for 23 years before the current prime minister, her 15th, was even born.
She was crowned Queen in the first televised coronation in 1953. In the early years of her reign there was heady talk of Britain entering a new Elizabethan age. That never quite happened, and in retrospect the idea can be seen as a characteristic post-imperial conceit. She adapted, cautiously and pragmatically, to change. She managed to combine in her person the remote sacramental dimension of the British monarchy with a realistic acceptance that her standing rested on more secular foundations. In this, she provided an undeniable source of stability as the country underwent epochal changes at home and in the world during her lifetime.
The consequence of this generally deft approach is that her long reign was only rarely marked by anything that she herself did in the public sphere. There were exceptions. One was her visit to Ireland in 2011, which played a pivotal part in the historic reconciliations of that time. Another was the dispassionate care and affection, which often contrasted with the indifference of some politicians, that she displayed towards the nations of the United Kingdom, embodied in particular in her love of Scotland.
Even more long-lasting was her important formal part in the retreat from empire. This had begun under her father, when India became free in 1947. But from 1957 on, when Ghana became independent, many of the “possessions” that the Queen had sworn to govern in her coronation oath became self-governing instead, while mostly remaining within the Commonwealth. The post-imperial grouping mattered to the Queen and how it will survive her death is unclear.
Hers was a reign marked far more by private milestones and, later, by private traumas. There were many notable family events. They included the births of her four children, their marriages, the investiture of her heir, Charles, as the Prince of Wales in 1969, the deaths of her uncle the Duke of Windsor in 1972 and her mother aged 101 in 2002, as well as her own jubilees: silver in 1977, golden in 2002, diamond in 2012 and sapphire in 2017 (the first by any British monarch). She died just months after her unprecedented platinum jubilee. In 1969, the Queen allowed the BBC to make a documentary about her family life. Yet when the family’s problems mounted there would be no question of a follow-up. In its absence, television turned instead to fanciful dramas, notably The Crown (from which the late queen emerged very well). Nevertheless, from the 1990s onwards there was increasing public questioning of the monarchy, its cost and its place within British life.
These challenges started in the 1950s, notably over Princess Margaret’s wish to marry a divorcee. But they spiralled in the 1980s and 1990s with the divorces of three of the Queen’s children and with the “annus horribilis” of 1992, and reached a climax after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when there was much talk of the monarchy being irrevocably out of touch and a fresh and rare surge of republican advocacy. The royals steadied themselves in the early 21st century before fresh challenges emerged in the shape of the tabloid treatment of Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle and in Prince Andrew’s association with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Elizabeth II leaves a space behind that is unlikely to be filled. The monarchy of the future will not be the same. Much careful thought, in which parliament has a need to be properly consulted and a right to give its final approval, must be given both to reform of the royal finances and the civil list. Most immediately, the coronation – a religious ceremony that is unique among the European monarchies – must be debated.
King Charles III comes to the throne at the age of 73, and is both the first university graduate and the first divorcee to reign in modern times. His character and his foibles are well-known. He may prove a more transitional figure than seemed likely if he had succeeded to the throne at an earlier age. As the holder of what is now essentially a ceremonial and formal headship of state, he would be wise, at this stage of his life and with the country so fragile in so many other ways, not to see himself as a reforming or “useful” king. Likewise, the post-Diana preoccupation in some quarters about whether Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, should become queen now seems more ephemeral and contrived. Let it be.
The monarchy, built on a system of hereditary privilege, is an anachronism in the modern age. However, the day of the Queen’s passing is not the right one for contentious reflection on the continuing place, if any, of the monarchy. That will, and should, come soon. Let us for now acknowledge amid the national shock, first, that the late Queen did the job for so long with enormous dedication and deserved the national respect and affection that she is receiving in death. And, second, let us be sensible enough, as a changed and changing nation, to recognise that the monarchy will and must change too. These will be days of solemnity. But it will soon be the right time to debate these issues seriously, with nothing ruled out, and if possible without the mesmerised self-delusion that has so often surrounded the subject.
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