By Alan Crawford
She is viewed by many as an anchor of stability in an increasingly uncertain time. A symbol of unity over division. A ruler whose sense of duty and moral standard are timeless. Yet the queen, as Elizabeth II is simply known, may represent a Great Britain that no longer exists. When she assumed the throne in 1952 — just seven years after Britain emerged victorious from World War II — the nation’s collective memory of its empire was still fresh. Now 93, Britain’s longest-serving monarch is witnessing new pressures. As the U.K. unwinds an almost half-century relationship with the European Union, the country is enduring an extended period of upheaval.
The queen remains enormously popular at home: More than three-quarters of Britons favor retaining the monarchy, and almost 9 in 10 approve of the way she does her job, according to 2016 polls from Ipsos Mori. The royal family’s appeal has been refreshed and modernized by the queen’s grandsons, Prince William and Prince Harry (who married Meghan Markle, a mixed-race American actress, in 2018).
This new generation has provided a distraction for a Britain polarized by the 2016 referendum to exit the EU, which exposed anxieties about immigration and globalization. With voters now as likely to identify as pro- or anti-Brexit as they do with any of the main political parties, the queen is for some a bulwark against the growing lack of faith in the institutions that secured peace and prosperity for generations. A 2017 article in the Guardian newspaper that detailed secret government plans for the days after her death explained the worry: “The queen is approaching the end of her reign at a time of maximum disquiet about Britain’s place in the world.”
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in 1926 and became queen at the age of 25 upon the death of her father, King George VI. She oversaw Britain’s transition from postwar rationing to the rise of London as a global financial center, only for that status to be challenged by Brexit. While she has no political power — her role is symbolic as head of state and of the Church of England — she receives weekly briefings at the palace from the prime minister of the day (the first was Winston Churchill; Boris Johnson her 14th). She is also head of the Commonwealth of 53 nations, a loose association of former British territories. In Canada, Australia and even in the U.K. there have been periodic groundswells to ditch her as a figurehead and convert the country to a republic, where the people reign supreme. One of those came after the 1997 death of Princess Diana, the popular and in some cases idolized former wife of Prince Charles, the queen’s eldest son and first in line to the throne. A perception that she was late to demonstrate grief raised public questions about the royal family’s ability to relate to its subjects and the cost of its upkeep, though the family is considered a significant draw for tourists. The size of the queen’s personal fortune is estimated at about $420 million by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
To republicans, the queen is the ultimate symbol of an outmoded class system and out of place in the modern world. (There are still 10 other constitutional monarchies in Europe.) As Brexit leaves Britain facing an uncertain future, the question that’s beginning to be asked is whether her heirs will see the nation splinter further once she’s gone. With her stiff upper lip and sheer longevity — few people alive remember a Britain before her — the queen is for many Britons a unifying force who helps define who they are. Yet it may fall to Charles, now 71 and considerably less popular than his mother, to help keep the country intact in the face of threats to its continued integrity. The UK is made up of four constituent nations, but only two — England and Wales — voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Scotland and Northern Ireland are being pulled out against their will. That has put a rerun of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum back on the agenda, fanned signs of nationalism in England and even stirred the prospect of Irish reunification. So far even Scotland’s nationalists want to retain the queen as head of state in an independent country, but that policy might not survive a King Charles on the throne.