The decline of post-Elizabethan Britain will be hastened now
“Aperiod of national decline” was how Polly Toynbee, The Guardian commentator, responded when asked what she believed the Queen’s life represented.
Royalists may be taken aback at such a suggestion, especially so soon after her passing. And yet, by observing the facts, it is hard to argue with Toynbee. At the time of becoming head of state, the Queen reigned over almost one-third of the world’s population. The country that in the main part considered her as a near-deity at her death was vastly smaller, and far less powerful.
What is the role of a non-elected head of state? In a parliamentary democracy, perhaps it is simply to show up and exist in the celestial space above the day-to-day maelstrom of politics. The Queen, of course, did this superbly, but she went further. She embodied a Britain that you could, would and, more importantly, wanted to believe in.
The fact that this Britain no longer exists, or perhaps never did, was beside the point. Her very “being” made all the very real failings of actual Britain bearable. She made it possible for all Britons to be proud to be British.
This achievement was despite overseeing such a lengthy and – with the exceptions of boom periods in the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s – almost secular period of national decline. During her reign, Britain lost an empire, suicidally voted to leave the EU, experienced its sacred National Health Service (NHS) crumbling, and now experiences increasingly patchy safety and security. Her remarkable triumph was that she helped her country come to terms with this.
Culturally, economically and socially, the country arguably peaked when the Queen herself supposedly leapt out of a helicopter with James Bond at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Subsequently, the post-financial crisis austerity measures brought swinging cuts to the police and NHS, from which they have never recovered. Waiting times for hospitals and medical treatments are at record levels, with murder and crime statistics at all-time highs.
The referendum on membership of the EU exposed cultural and societal fissures that were far deeper than any had imagined, and then only widened them. After six years, many scars remain. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that Brexit will ultimately reduce productivity and UK GDP by 4% compared with if it had remained inside the EU. Partly as a result of Brexit, the country is experiencing the worst cost-of-living crisis in more than 40 years.
Covid and the government’s bungled response exposed an administration that was not just inept, but also disrespectful. Elizabeth’s “we’ll meet again” address to the nation on Covid was the best recent example of her ability to so calmly, and masterfully, provide hope and healing.
The choice of the Queen to die in Scotland was, of course, deliberate. She was working right to the very end. King Charles’s main job will be simply to ensure that his kingdom does not fall apart. Early faux pas such as grimacing and showing clear annoyance to an aide during his accession ceremony, when clearly he did not feel it was the role of a king to move an inkpot, make it unclear as to whether he will even be up to that.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, as social and economic woes mount and with the Queen no longer there to act as a salve for such wounds, calls for independence and unification with the Republic of Ireland only grow louder. Polls show that a majority of Scots and Northern Irish under 30 would vote for this. The Scottish National Party-led ruling coalition in Scotland has made clear its intentions to hold a second independence referendum in 2023.
The Queen’s story was one of overseeing a nation that went from empire to middle power status while powerfully and compellingly concealing its imperfections. It may be up to her son to preside over the final collapse.