Queen’s death deprives Britain of its rock of stability


Queen’s death deprives Britain of its rock of stability

Queen’s death deprives Britain of its rock of stability
An image of Queen Elizabeth at Piccadilly Circus after she died aged 96, London, Britain, Sept. 8, 2022. (Reuters)
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The death of Queen Elizabeth on Thursday after a record-breaking reign shines a spotlight on the uncertain future of not just the monarchy, but also of the UK itself.  

Her passing will remind audiences there and abroad, including her beloved Commonwealth, of the unifying role she has played in recent decades. The queen was widely admired internationally, fueled by her visits to well over 100 countries during the longest reign in British history.   

Part of the reason for this is that she represents a figure of significant continuity during a seven-decade period when the world has been transformed.  When she ascended the throne, Winston Churchill was UK prime minister, Joseph Stalin was leader of the Soviet Union, Harry Truman was US president, and Mao Zedong was the Chinese Communist leader.  The Korean War was still underway, the People’s Republic of China was only two years old, and the UK was just about to join the US and Soviet Union as a nuclear weapons power.   

Today China is an emerging superpower, with the largest economy in the world on purchasing power parity terms; the Soviet Union has long ago disappeared from the geopolitical landscape (although Russia continues to challenge the world, as shown most recently in Ukraine); and the UK has transitioned to what some term as a “middle power” with its empire dismantled, although some of these former colonial states and dominions remain in the 54-member 2.4 billion population Commonwealth that Elizabeth did much to champion.  

The stability she has provided has been important for many institutions, including the monarchy and Commonwealth, but also the UK itself.  The continued union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could suffer from a less popular head of state in the future.     

As much as Elizabeth was a stabilizing force for many people, the UK appears to be increasingly divided on geographic lines. This is especially given increased pressure since Brexit for independence in Scotland,  plus also the growing signs of political change in Northern Ireland with the nationalist Sein Fein party, which favors unification of the island of Ireland, becoming the largest single party in last May’s elections.  

Beyond the debates about the Commonwealth and UK, there is also significant uncertainty over the future of the monarchy itself. Amid the high esteem in which the queen and some other royals are currently held, what is sometimes forgotten is that she has enjoyed bouts of significantly lower popularity.   

The stability she has provided has been important for many institutions, including the monarchy and Commonwealth, but also the UK itself.

Andrew Hammond

The 1990s were particularly troubled, with 1992 becoming her self-described “annus horribilis” when the marriages of three of her children, including her heir Prince Charles, disintegrated, and Windsor Castle was nearly destroyed by fire. Meanwhile her response to the 1997 death of Charles’s first wife, Princess Diana, was widely criticized at the time by the UK public.  

Nonetheless, the royal family appears to have largely recovered from this period, and the media focus on Elizabeth’s remarkable, long life is highlighting the continuing fascination much of the population has with the monarchy.  This is a key driver of the fact that less than a quarter of the UK population today wants a republic, and many believe that it is better to have a non-divisive, non-political head of state.  

That said, the personal popularity of Charles is neither as high as his mother’s nor that of his own son William.  Moreover, at almost 74, Charles is already at an age when many people are retired, and is the longest-waiting and oldest heir to the throne in UK history.  

Indeed, some polls show that a significant body of the UK public would now prefer the monarchy to skip a generation from Elizabeth to William. This leaves open the significant possibility that the royal family could become less popular under Charles’s rule.  

The skill Charles now shows as Elizabeth’s successor could therefore have implications not just for the monarchy, but also the wider union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He will do well to learn the astuteness his mother has shown of being a reformer, while being widely seen as a force for stability, evolving to meet the changing social, political and economic contours of the 21st century.   

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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