Stability, and perhaps even decency, has been lacking in the UK in recent years. Issues such as Scottish independence, Brexit and the future of Northern Ireland have polarized the country, while the conduct of its key politicians during Covid-19 lockdowns has shaken confidence in its leaders and damaged its reputation in the world.
Above all this, there was a woman: Queen Elizabeth II. As the celebrations unfolded in Downing Street, she mourned her husband in a manner consistent with regulations in the rest of the country. That she behaved with such dignity, with such humility, surprised no one. It was, after all, entirely in keeping with her conduct as a monarch since she came to the throne in 1952. The more standards slipped in other British institutions, the more the Queen stood out.
To have been in the public eye for 96 years and live in such a scandal-free way that has commanded respect in every corner of the world seems almost impossible in the 2020s, in the age of social media. And that is what the United Kingdom has lost: a bastion of dignity, decency, discretion and stability, which has demonstrated these qualities in a way that no other statesman or woman has World State could not imitate. Even the ever-growing number of Republicans in the UK would give him respect, for it is no understatement to claim that there has not been a greater and more dedicated civil servant in any country in the history of the world. She is simply irreplaceable.
A constant in times of change
The United Kingdom that Queen Elizabeth II inherited on her father’s death in 1952 is very different from that of 2022. Its status as a world power has diminished and the Empire is now a Commonwealth. The country is one of the most multicultural in the world, having experienced social and economic revolutions. Although the Cold War and the rise of countries like India and China saw the UK lose its hard power status, it still wields a high level of soft power over the world, and the Queen has been instrumental important in this regard. A country’s image and perception is an important part of the soft power it wields, and in its queen, the UK has had a figurehead and ambassador that was the envy of most.
It was telling that in the wave of tributes from international figures in the aftermath of the Queen’s death, former US President Donald Trump sent a long, moving and touching message of condolence. Trump rarely showed deference to anyone during his time in the White House (a trend that has continued since he was elected), and yet his afternoon at Buckingham Palace in 2019 seems to have left him with a indelible impression that led to this rare spectacle of humility. For presidents and prime ministers of the past 70 years, however turbulent their history with the UK, time spent in the presence of the Queen has been an unforgettable experience.
And that matters. When a Head of State visited the UK, the Queen, with her warmth, her sense of humour, her place in history, was the ace in the country’s sleeve. A reception at 10 Downing Street was often a routine meeting of elected leaders having high-level conversations, much like they had had countless times before. A cup of tea with a woman who had received the likes of Winston Churchill, JFK, Tito, Indira Ghandi, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela et al? No other country could make such an unforgettable offer. The favorable impression such meetings would generate has not hurt the UK when it comes to forming alliances, attracting investment, striking trade deals, maintaining its role as a global soft power, even when his hard power credentials were crumbling.
The UK has lost one of its greatest assets in Queen Elizabeth II
King Charles III was the first to take the throne for 70 years, and now he finds himself with an unenviable act to follow. He promised “not to meddle” as a monarch, something he didn’t always achieve as Prince of Wales, and his life was certainly not as scandalless as his mother’s. Away from his private life, his estrangement from his youngest son has generated many unwanted headlines, while the accusations surrounding his younger brother, Prince Andrew, have further tarnished the reputation of the royal family. While such a trustworthy figure as Queen Elizabeth II was at the helm, the UK had a matriarch of impeccable character who helped deflect some of that controversy. No living royal can offer such a buffer against scandal, negative headlines, brand damage.
The difficulties that King Charles will have to face also go beyond the domestic domain. Barbados deposed the queen as head of state and transitioned to a parliamentary republic in November 2021, and Jamaica has suggested it will do the same. It remains to be seen how many other countries will follow, but it seems unlikely that they will be the only two dominoes to fall. In the UK, support for the monarchy has declined, albeit slowly, in recent years and was just 61% in a May 2021 YouGov poll. A majority in the 18-24 age group declared to prefer an elected head of state replacing the monarch. After the inevitable outpourings of grief and patriotism in the weeks and months to come, it seems unlikely that King Charles will reverse this direction of travel.
The UK has already found itself in a period of instability, uncertain of its role in the world in a way that stands in stark contrast to the confident, modern country witnessed by a huge international audience at the ceremony. opening of the London 2012 Olympics (which culminated, let’s not forget, the Queen’s parachute jump into the stadium after meeting James Bond). Brexit has left it alienated from its closest trading bloc, and a rise in nationalism in recent years, both inside and outside the Houses of Parliament, has left the country looking insular and bereft of everything. long-term plan to fix its stuttering economy. The last thing he needed was a jolt of that nature.
What now for the UK?
Of the many rather staggering statistics to be produced on the length of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the fact that she was monarch for a third of the history of the United States is perhaps the most striking. This puts its historical significance in context. It is estimated that she visited 117 countries, and while it would be wrong to claim that she received a universally warm welcome in all of them, she could usually count on being greeted by streets filled with supporters. Again, how many prime ministers, presidents or chancellors could make such a claim? Will a personality from the United Kingdom be able to command such international respect again?
The United Kingdom lost many things on September 8: a monarch, a diplomat, a standard bearer, an icon, a beacon of stability, a unifying presence, an international ambassador that no other country could hope to match. The country will miss, in the months to come, its reassuring presence, but in the years to come, it will miss its world position, its gravity, even more. This is not to undo King Charles, who has prepared for the role over the past seven decades, but the Queen was unique in many ways which benefited both the UK and to UK plc. There is no one in the world who could replace her, as the UK will find out.