Queen Elizabeth’s death comes at a time of doubt and uncertainty in the UK

Queen Elizabeth II's carriage passes through Trafalgar Square on the day of her coronation at Westminster Abbey, June 2, 1953.
Queen Elizabeth II’s carriage passes through Trafalgar Square on the day of her coronation at Westminster Abbey, June 2, 1953. (Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

LONDON — In 1953, Eve Pollard’s parents bought a small black-and-white television so the family could watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Pollard was 7 and she remembers neighbors crowding into her house, all dressed for the TV broadcast – men in ties, women in smart outfits and Pollard in a frilly, checkered dress.

“That’s how innocent we were,” said Pollard, a longtime London journalist and author. “We had just won a war, a big victory, and the queen was so glamorous. Now we ask ourselves: ‘Who are we? And where are we going?’ »

With the Queen’s death on Thursday, Britain’s New Elizabethan Age is over, replaced by a time of uncertainty and questions about the future.

His passing comes as the island nation of 67 million was already mired in difficult and complicated times, with the question of national identity – tense and unanswered since the end of World War II – hazy and a source of division.

The prideful proclamations of Brexiteers – who heralded a new era of ‘Global Britain’ in the aftermath of its break with the European Union – have degenerated into petty legal disputes and sniping with its closest neighbours. The country is experiencing the highest energy cost spikes in Europe and a revolving door at 10 Downing Street that makes Britain suddenly look more like Italy – working on its fourth prime minister in six years.

Regional tensions that have long plagued London are also rising. Scots, already seeking another vote for independence, may find this time ripe for a fresh start in the absence of a beloved and shared Queen. Northern Ireland, whose status has never been fully clear after Brexit, is nervous, bringing worrying echoes.

“She was the glue that held our nation together for as long as most of us can remember,” veteran Scottish journalist and former BBC presenter Andrew Neil wrote in the Daily Mail. “Through war and peace, social revolution and consolidation, separatist challenges and national unity, politicians here today and tomorrow (including his 15 prime ministers), from Empire to Commonwealth .”

“…With her gone,” he wrote, “the risk of unraveling and collapsing on so many fronts is all the greater.”

The country is now moving forward with a new monarch, King Charles III, less popular than his mother and even than his son and heir, Prince William. The new prime minister, Liz Truss, was chosen by Conservative Party members and has yet to be tested in a public vote. A recent poll showed just 12% of Britons expect her to be a good or great leader, with 52% predicting her tenure will be “poor or terrible”.

“There will be a substantial moment of national introspection, a long moment of pause on what the Queen’s death means for Britain’s role in the world,” said Tony Travers, UK policy expert at the London School of Economics.

“Britain has a separate head of state and government, and both have changed in the space of two days,” he said. “The death of a monarch and the change of Prime Minister has happened before, of course, but it will be a profound moment of collective self-reflection in the UK”

Flowers and other offerings pile up outside Buckingham Palace, where crowds have gathered to pay their respects. In interviews, many said they were impressed with King Charles.

They know he’ll be different from his mother, but they’re also used to him – he’s the longest-waiting king. In recent years, and especially in recent months, Charles has taken on more of his mother’s duties. He stood in for her at major events like the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and the official opening ceremony of Parliament.

Still, the Queen’s passing was shocking. “I woke up this morning and felt really weird. It’s like there’s been a seismic shift in reality,” said Louise Kirby, 52, who works for an aquarium in the east from Yorkshire.” I got a message from my mum saying, ‘What awaits us?'”

She said her mother is a supporter of the royal family and loves Charles but is worried. “Can we face another change? We have been faced with so many changes in the world, are we ready for another? »

“Even if change is good — not that the queen’s death is good — we can all react to change in weird ways,” Kirby said. “There is a certain unease”

The national outpouring for the death of the 96-year-old Queen seems more muted than the collective mourning sparked by the sudden death of Princess Diana 25 years ago when she was just 36.

There is also a generational disconnect. Many young Britons care little for the monarchy and see it as a relic of an often troubled past. Some chafed at the massive media attention to the Queen’s death and said Brexit was a much bigger issue.

Yet for millions, Queen Elizabeth was a touchstone, a symbol of British pride and greatness, a living bridge to a greater time.

When she became monarch in 1952, Britain was the most industrialized nation in Europe, accounting for almost 10% of world trade. Today, its economy is largely eclipsed by the once-defeated Germany, and only slightly larger than that of France.

The quality of its leadership has declined, from the lion that was Winston Churchill to the scandal-ridden tastes of the recently ousted Boris Johnson, known perhaps more for his flubs and flippancy than his stewardship of Britain.

“In 1953 the United Kingdom, its government and its civil servants were highly respected around the world,” said David Edgerton, professor of modern British history at King’s College. “And today people look in amazement at our Prime Ministers and are amazed at their apparent lack of understanding of reality.”

Post-war Britain was not a golden age, as the country struggled to modernize its economy and society, leading to labor disputes and often dark economic times. These problems, along with the Cold War and subsequent violence in Northern Ireland, lasted until the end of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s term in the 1980s.

Yet at the end of World War II, Elizabeth, then a young princess, had stood alongside a smiling Churchill on V-Day, waving to cheering crowds celebrating victory over Nazi Germany and full of hope for Britain’s future.

Today, war has returned to Europe because another leader, Russian Vladimir Putin, is determined to destroy neighboring lands in order to conquer them. Fighting in Ukraine has cut off the world’s energy supply and will likely force Britain to borrow millions to help heat British homes through a harsh winter.

“This country always thought we could at least heat our homes,” Pollard said. “Suddenly we woke up to find everyone in a real bind. Suddenly, we don’t seem to be quite the strong country we thought we were.

Concretely, the arrival of a new Prime Minister is more important in daily British life than the ascendancy of the new King. The monarch can empathize with people struggling to heat their homes, but the prime minister can provide money and programs.

But Queen Elizabeth held a unique place in British life. Even people who despise the monarchy loved him. She projected British pride. She was what Britain wanted to see when she looked in the mirror. His loss is disturbing.

“There’s a sense of unease, but people can’t quite put their finger on the source of that, other than a sense of change and not knowing exactly what the future will look like.” , said Bronwen Maddox, manager of Chatham. House, the British think tank. “We are entering a point where Britain is less sure of its role in the world.”

Robin Niblett, Maddox’s predecessor at Chatham House, said Britain was already in decline by the time the Queen ascended the throne. His once great empire was declining. And Elizabeth’s reign was marked by further deterioration, including the humiliating Suez Crisis of 1956, in which British, French and Israeli troops were forced to withdraw from a military operation to regain control. from the Suez Canal to Egypt. The episode was widely seen as an affirmation of Britain’s reduction to a second-tier power.

Niblett said the nation had already ceased to be defined “entirely by her”. New cultural touchstones beyond the monarchy, from Harry Potter to ‘Downton Abbey’, are now Britain’s most familiar global symbols.

While Britain now has a wealthier and more diverse population than ever before, it is also deeply divided along economic and cultural lines in a way that mirrors the polarization in the United States.

King Charles III also inherits from his mother the problem of how to deal with the Commonwealth nations’ growing unease with colonial history and their allegiance to the crown.

Last November, Barbados severed its colonial-era ties to the British throne, declaring itself a republic amid fireworks and cheers. Earlier this year, the Caribbean trips of Prince Edward, Elizabeth’s youngest son, and his wife, Sophie, and Prince William and his wife, Catherine, were marred by protests and calls for reparations from the countries colonized by Great Britain which still hold its monarch as head of state.

Six island nations in the region – Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Kitts and Nevis – have already announced their intention to drop the British monarch as head of state and name theirs.

“It is inevitable that the countries where Charles III is now king will become republics,” said Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the United States. “Not because of the death of Elizabeth II, who had been their sovereign for 70 years, but because it has become incongruous that independent and sovereign countries continue to cling to the British crown.”

Maddox said British government officials were reluctant to make changes to longstanding traditions considered important to the Queen, including the role of the monarch as head of the Church of England and the hereditary nature of memberships in the House of Lords.

“Conversations that were deliberately avoided out of respect for Queen Elizabeth could be more open and accessible now,” she said.

The changes on the horizon were highlighted by the Queen’s death. Welcome or not, they caused concern in the country she ruled.

“It makes people feel like we’re not sure of ourselves,” Pollard said. “The British are worried about our place.”

Karla Adam contributed to this report.