Editor’s Note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of “Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party” and “Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist.” The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Britain has lost its most cherished symbol of continuity. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest reigning monarch, has died. She succeeded to that title in 2015, when she displaced Queen Victoria, Britain’s monarch from 1837 to 1901. The Queen celebrated her Platinum Jubilee this past February, marking 70 years on the throne.
She rose to leadership in the aftermath of the Second World War, at a time of rapid social and geostrategic change for Britain. Her coronation on June 2, 1953, was one of the first major televised events in Britain, and, in many ways heralded a new age of mass affluence in post-war Britain, with not only TVs, but cars, refrigerators and indoor plumbing becoming standard in British homes.
Her Platinum Jubilee was a welcome excuse for Britons and Commonwealth subjects around the globe to come out in the streets and celebrate after harsh restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those twin bookends of national crisis – world war and global pandemic – speak to the scope and meaning of the Queen’s longevity.
The past half century of British politics has witnessed a shift away from the national tendency to define historical epochs by monarchs – the Plantagenets, the Elizabethan era, the Georgian Era, the Regency, the long Victorian Era, the Edwardians – toward a more American tendency to cast history in terms of those elected representatives whose policies shaped the socio-economic and political landscape. And so, historians talk about the Thatcher era and the Blair Years, emphasizing the radical changes between the 1980s and the early millennium.
In part, this reflects the pace and extent of change that took place on the Queen’s watch. In part, it reflects the declining political significance of the monarch, who remains the ceremonial head of state but has long ago ceased to function as a head of government.
But, if we step back and survey the seven decades of the second Elizabethan era, there is a coherence to her time as Queen which future historians will almost certainly appreciate. Queen Elizabeth II oversaw the transformation of the British empire into a commonwealth of nations, and the United Kingdom into a devolved but unified confederacy of nation states.
During her long reign, the shadow of past imperial misgovernance threatened to undermine the transition from empire to commonwealth abroad and poison efforts to foster a multiethnic British identity at home. Scottish nationalism and conflict in Northern Ireland risked the breakup of the United Kingdom.
But Britain, the commonwealth and the monarchy held together, in part owing to the stabilizing influence of the Queen. On Queen Elizabeth II’s watch, post-war Britain rebuilt itself in the wake of two devastating world wars, and became the modern nation celebrated to such fanfare in the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies – an international spectacle in which the Queen gamely played a starring role, alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond.
And in a country whose recent politics have been defined by increasing polarization and disunity dating back to the Brexit referendum in 2016, if not before, Queen Elizabeth has been one of the few figures capable of uniting the country. As an American expatriate living in Britain, I harbored an inherent skepticism of monarchy as an institution, but the Queen – so ubiquitous a national figure that my nursery-school aged son learned to celebrate her two birthdays before he could even remember his own – was a hard woman to dislike.
Her father, George VI had reigned during the Second World War, when the British empire was one of the “Big Three” allied powers, alongside the United States and the Soviet Union, that defeated the Axis. In the decades after the war, Britain’s hard power declined considerably, as the bipolar politics of the USA v. the USSR came to dominated global politics.
But, as Britain’s hard power declined, its soft power soared. In the 1960s, Beatlemania swept first Britain and then the globe, and not only the Beatles, but the Rolling Stones, The Who, David Bowie, Queen and Elton John set the tempo for rock music for much of the next two decades. Over the years, the Queen would grant royal honors to Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Sir Michael Jagger – although both David Bowie and John Lennon refused the royal honor, with Lennon explicitly citing the damage that the British empire had done in Africa.
In the 1990s, Britpop again put the country on the musical map, as the Spice Girls – whose 1997 photo ops with the Prince Charles and the Queen helped to cement the relationship between the monarchy and “Cool Britannia.”
The decline of Britain’s imperial power during the Queen’s reign was coupled with new roles for Britain shaped by her membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, Europe and the Anglo-American special relationship.
Not long after her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II began to witness the rising tide of colonial independence movements and the shift from a British empire defined by a metropolitan center and imperial dependencies to a commonwealth of 56 sovereign and equal nations united by a shared monarch. While based in Britain, the Queen was deeply committed to her role as head of the Commonwealth and spent much of her time on the throne traveling to other Commonwealth nations.
She was Britain’s head of state when the country entered the European Community (as the European Union was then known) in 1973 and when it voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
She has met personally with 13 of the last 14 US presidents, more recently when President Joe Biden visited her for tea at Balmoral in June 2021. (Lyndon Johnson was the only president not to meet the Queen during his time in office). Her statesmanship helped to cement the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States that became a pilar of British foreign policy after the Second World War.
She has formally appointed 15 prime ministers, including Prime Minister Liz Truss, who took office on Tuesday after traveling to Balmoral Castle in Scotland to meet with the ailing queen.
Over the past several days, videos have surfaced of Truss as a teenage university student denouncing the institution of the monarchy, and asserting that, “I’m not against any of them personally, I’m against the idea that people can be born to rule. That people – because of the family they’re born into – should be able to be the head of state of our country: I think that’s disgraceful.” Last year, similar video footage surfaced of the Labour leader Keir Starmer joking that he “used to propose the abolition of the monarchy.”
The youthful comments of both party leaders were in contrast to their dignified statements of concern and condolence on Thursday. While some might suspect the sincerity of party leaders’ sentiments, in light of their professed republicanism, they are perhaps better taken as evidence of the affection and respect that the Queen has inspired even amongst those not predisposed to support the institution of monarchy.
Just over 60% of Britons profess to support the British monarchy. Yet, a recent YouGov poll found that 75% percent of Britons liked the Queen, while only 8% disliked her. She had much higher approval ratings than her eldest son who will succeed her on the throne. Only 42% of Britons professed to like Charles, while 24% disliked him.
Even self-professed republicans (anti-monarchists, not conservatives), are willing to acknowledge that the Queen lived up to the obligations conferred by her hereditary privilege and served honorably as head of state. And they like her for it.
The affinity between the Queen and her subjects was strengthened this past year when her husband Prince Philip passed away and she was seen sitting in isolation in Westminster Abbey during his funeral, mourning her partner of 73 years. Images of the event sparked immense sympathy for the Queen, in particular amongst the thousands of Britons who had similarly lost loved ones during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The contrast between the Queen’s stoic observation of pandemic isolation requirements and the news that broke earlier this summer that members of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office had thrown illegal “lockdown parties” at Downing Street on the eve of the funeral ignited national outrage at the now former prime minister and contributed directly to the calls for his removal.
The message was straight forward: the Queen had played by the law that governed herself as well as her subjects. The former prime minister had disrespected the British people and broken the bonds of trust between leaders and governed by behaving as if he were above the law.
As Britons and Commonwealth subjects around the globe mourn the loss of the Queen, there are important questions about what lies ahead for the country and the Commonwealth. While a majority of Britons still support the institution of the monarchy, there is little enthusiasm in Britain for the prospective King Charles III.
In other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and Canada, polls have shown much less support for the monarchy’s continuation, despite strong affection of Queen Elizabeth. Jamaica recently announced plans to leave the commonwealth and become a republic by 2025.
The weeks and months to come will reveal whether or not the Commonwealth can outlast its longest serving monarch.