AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
The Queen is dead, long live the King! When Queen Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952, Winston Churchill was her first Prime Minister, and her most recent, Elizabeth Truss, whom the Queen met with Tuesday in her final official act, would not be born for another 23 years. Well over 95% of the world’s population has never known another British monarch. Her passing on Thursday marked the definitive end of an era, one that saw a number of great triumphs, but perhaps none greater than the traditional values of dignity, honor, and self-sacrifice that she embodied to the end.
While many on both the Right and the Left will frame Elizabeth’s reign in terms of imperial rule and British decline, the reality is somewhat more complex. The British Empire was already in decline when she took the throne, having lost India five years before. When her father died, it was a British event, important for Britain and the remaining Empire. Elizabeth’s death, however, is dominating coverage in territories that have not been part of the British Empire for centuries, such as the United States, as well as countries that were never under British rule. If Elizabeth’s predecessors presided over the decline of the physical British Empire, Elizabeth reinvented the monarchy as a global cultural phenomenon that did not require one to be a British citizen to partake.
Previous monarchs have lived long enough to define eras; the Georgian, Regency and Edwardian periods immediately come to mind. But it is perhaps a quirk of British history that three long-lived female British monarchs came to define three of the most vital periods of Western history. Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) saw the consolidation of English national identity with the firm establishment of the Church of England and the birth of England as a great power. This was important because it helped determine the direction English culture would take, glorifying religion and national service at a time when the conflict between the two was tearing apart France and Germany. Queen Victoria (1837-1901) oversaw the apogee of the state and culture Elizabeth I had bequeathed, which for a brief time it straddled the globe.
In the 20th century, Queen Elizabeth II was prevented by custom and the laws of physics from doing much about the declining reach of the writ of her ministers. But she could and did do a lot to shore up the monarchy, both domestically and internationally.
That task was hardly easy. The entire concept of the British Monarchy was so intertwined with the concept of Empire that it passed almost without comment that independence from Britain meant the abolition of the monarchy. Elizabeth worked to promote the idea that the monarchy could serve newly independent countries, rather than serve them. The maintenance of the Queen as head of state simplified local political conflicts over who would be president, while it also added a cultural cachet, allowing the locals to share in her personal brand. The success of this approach was tied to her own ability to make millions of people wish to be associated with herself, and to prefer Queen Elizabeth II to local politicians. While the fact that this strategy did not succeed everywhere is easy to point to as a failure, its successes are impressive in a global context. The monarchy, for example, won a referendum in Australia in 1999.
Under Elizabeth, even some defeats turned into victories. The defeat of the monarchy in South Africa, caused by the Queen’s refusal to sanction Apartheid, won Elizabeth the loyalty of Nelson Mandela and the affection of millions after 1994. Similarly, even in states where the monarchy had already lost prior to her ascension, Elizabeth turned the monarchy into a moral institution. India may have become an independent republic in 1948, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi still declared that “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered as a stalwart of our times,” while recounting an incident where she showed him a handkerchief Mahatma Gandhi had gifted her at her wedding during their meetings. That Irish republicans, whether in Dublin, Belfast, or the American White House, are expressing their admiration alongside Indian nationalists and Communist leaders is a testament to how far Elizabeth went to not just place the monarchy above partisanship at home, but to turn it into an international symbol of soft power.
Even in Great Britain, Elizabeth took the throne in the shadow of the forced abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, in 1936. Today the abdication crisis is looked upon largely as a tragic romance. The political and constitutional implications are ignored. The issue was not that a King had wished to marry someone his ministers opposed, but that he had tried to fire them for their opposition, and it was the refusal of any prominent politician from any party to form a government or allow the King to hold an election on the issue which forced him out. It demonstrated that the monarch existed at the sufferance of Parliament, and it was far from clear in the climate after the Second World War, when the Labour Party pursued the nationalization of industry, the breakup of the traditional education system, and assaults on landed wealth in the name of “modernization,” that the public would not see the monarchy as one of those outdated institutions in need of reform or outright abolition.
Elizabeth’s success is even more impressive when contrasted with the fate of monarchies elsewhere. The post-war period has not been a good one for monarchies. The Italian monarchy was abolished in 1946 by referendum, and Elizabeth’s cousin Constantine in Greece found himself deposed in 1974 amid accusations that he mishandled the political crisis of the 1960s. Today the Spanish monarchy is on life-support, while monarchies in Afghanistan, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Nepal, and Yemen all fell during Elizabeth’s reign.
Yet rather than falling as it did, the British monarchy thrived, ironically filling the gap left by the abolition of other monarchies.
Elizabeth’s success both domestically and internationally came down to turning the monarchy into an institution that offered something politicians and celebrities could not: dignity and moral fortitude. Politicians could offer policy promises and fiery rhetoric, while celebrities could offer entertainment, drama, and pomp, but all ultimately did so from a perspective of self-interest. Elizabeth, by contrast, understood that what was missing in the world was precisely the old-fashioned values of service and abstinence.
Elizabeth’s understanding that the monarchy could only have value as long as it offered something politicians and celebrities could not define her response to the familial challenges of her reign when family members threatened to flirt with both politics and celebrity. When the media embraced Diana and Meghan Markle, arguing they offered just what the monarchy needed – celebrity, and a “woke” awareness of politics – the Queen understood the fickle nature of fame and pop culture. A celebrity could be found elsewhere, and there was no way the monarchy could compete in the sweepstakes of celebrity drama without being consumed by it. The only way to win was not to play. Meghan Markle wished to associate the monarchy with the transient fad of the 2010s, “woke” issues, when the entire strength of the Elizabethan monarchy was its timeless principles in an unstable world.
Elizabeth grasped that while Diana’s celebrity and Meghan’s politics might burn bright, like the hottest stars, they would fade quickly. The monarch, by rejecting the temptations both represented, proved her wisdom. In the process, Elizabeth also proved the value of a monarchy with greater patience and a long-term perspective than elected politicians or the popular media. Elizabeth stoically endured the storms of abuse and emerged stronger for it.
The future success of the monarchy will depend largely on the willingness of Charles III and his successors to stick to this approach and demonstrate the same wisdom. This will be hard, as Charles and his new Queen Camilla know all too well from personal experience. Those same experiences, however, may have taught them the ultimate wisdom of the late Queen’s approach – a lesson that has been reinforced by the almost unified reaction, both at home and abroad, to Elizabeth’s death and legacy.
It is historical revisionism to say that Elizabeth I or even Victoria left unified countries. Elizabeth I faced constant rebellions in her final years, and there was widespread rejoicing at the succession of James VI of Scotland as James I upon her death, even if the public would come to regret the eagerness with which they welcomed the Stuarts. Victoria died, as did Elizabeth II, with an already elderly son who faced serious doubts about his fitness for the Kingship.
Elizabeth’s achievement is that she dies mourned by all. In acting as a symbol of continuity, she limited the impact of culture wars that have divided the United States and ensured that even the far-left must maintain at least a façade of nationalism. She inherited a Britain where many did not feel represented by the monarchy, and non-Britons saw the institution as a symbol of foreign influence. She dies not as the “Queen of England” or even the “British Queen,” but for billions of people around the world, as quite simply “the Queen.” That is no mean achievement.
Of all her accomplishments, she will be remembered most as a symbol of unity and self-sacrifice – as a Queen who reinvented the monarchy to represent the virtues everyone else was too eager to discard.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.