Sometime in the middle of last week, there came a moment when I spotted a switch. Hard to say, but a measurable shift in tone.
Nation in sincere mourning for a beloved monarch seemed to be moving towards something approaching despair and even panic. As if it couldn’t really let go. This was not simply a people honoring or even celebrating a queen who had staunchly served them for 70 years, but a nation in a state of incoherent confusion over her death.
Vox pops always evoked the same feeling: what do we do without them? It was as if they didn’t know what Britain, or more specifically England, would stand for in the post-Elizabethan era. It felt as if this frail old woman was the glue that held together an increasingly fractious kingdom and a multicultural society.
To a certain extent this is understandable. Monarchic continuity and certainty are a powerful balm against the stresses of real-world political and social upheaval. But the monarchy draws on ritual and tradition to justify itself, relying on kneeling before a better past rather than making peace with a more challenging present.
Historian Linda Colley argues that Protestant Britain’s identity was forged in its endless conflict with Catholic Spain and France and in the ruthless building of an empire on which the sun never set.
This imperial behemoth began to collapse after the Great War, as did its Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman counterparts. Great sacrifice, suffering and ultimate victory in World War II restored the luster of a damaged brand, but the reality was that Britain was bankrupt and overshadowed by the United States.
In 1947 India – the jewel in the crown – was declared independent after being incompetently partitioned by Lord Louis Mountbatten.
Young Elizabeth was not long on the throne in 1956 when then-British Prime Minister Anthony Eden became embroiled in his Suez campaign, a botched attempt to retake the canal. Britain was badly belittled by then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Britain has been taught harsh lessons about new realities. Four years later, Britain’s next prime minister, Harold Macmillan, in his landmark “Wind of Change” speech on decolonizing Africa, suggested he occasionally heeded it. But reality and appearance can often coexist peacefully. Decades later, Tony Blair’s ill-fated war in Iraq was a miscalculation based on Britain’s desperate need to be seen as a global ruler. Even if it’s on America’s coattails.
Brexit can be seen as the latest delusional nationalist project with no economic credentials to feed into this narrative of British exceptionalism. As long as Queen Elizabeth sat on the throne, these comforting myths seemed to persist, even if the woman herself was far too clever to ever feed them.
The British public seemed to sense they were saying goodbye to more than just one monarch last week. Instead, she realized that she was the last link to a glorious past that will not come back.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/queen-elizabeths-death-triggers-a-shaken-britain-to-offer-its-last-loyal-salute-to-a-vanishing-imperial-past-42002690.html The death of Queen Elizabeth prompts a shattered Britain to offer its last faithful salute to its dwindling imperial past