What the Queen Means to Britain in These Trying Times

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 94, Britain’s longest-serving monarch is witnessing new pressures. The U.K. is unwinding an almost half-century relationship with the European Union and has suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 pandemic, threatening an extended period of upheaval.

The Situation

The queen’s husband of almost 75 years, Prince Philip, died at the age of 99 in April 2021, compounding a difficult personal time for the monarch. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, a mixed-race American actress, rocked the royal household by making allegations of racism in a TV interview from their new home in California, a year after abruptly announcing they would cut financial ties and forge a “progressive new role” within the institution. The controversy with her grandson came after her son, Prince Andrew, stepped down from public duties over links with convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The royal family’s appeal had been somewhat refreshed and modernized by the queen’s grandsons and their new generation, providing a distraction for a Britain polarized since the 2016 referendum to exit the EU. That Brexit vote exposed anxieties about immigration and globalization; the queen, for some, is a bulwark against the growing lack of faith in the institutions that secured peace and prosperity for generations. She has been enormously popular at home: According to a March 2021 poll, four in five Britons have a positive view of the queen, and almost two-thirds favor retaining the monarchy, although support is lower among 18-24 year olds. 

What the Queen Means to Britain in These Trying Times

The Background

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in 1926 and became queen at the age of 25 after 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. 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 54 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 $400 million by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The Argument

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 continues to strain the bonds that join the United Kingdom, 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 72 and considerably less popular than his mother, to help keep the country intact in the face of threats to its continued integrity. The U.K. 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 were pulled out against their will regardless. 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. Until now even Scotland’s nationalists have favored retaining the queen as head of state in an independent country, but that policy might not survive a King Charles on the throne. 

The Reference Shelf

  • The queen’s 2019 message on Brexit suggested that lawmakers respect different points of view and seek common ground.
  • “London Bridge Is Down: The Secret Plan for the Days After the Queen’s Death,” from the Guardian.
  • Pollster Ipsos Mori has surveyed the public’s view of the monarchy for decades.
  • Brand Finance does periodic reports on the value of the monarchy to Britain.
  • The queen’s wealth was explored in this 2015 Bloomberg article based on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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