Stability, and maybe even decency, have been in short supply in the UK in the past few years. Issues such as Scottish independence, Brexit and the future of Northern Ireland have polarised the country, while the conduct of its leading politicians during the Covid-19 lockdowns dented faith in its leaders and damaged its reputation globally.
Above all of this has stood one woman: Queen Elizabeth II. While the parties were going on in Downing Street, she was mourning her husband in a manner that complied with the regulations that applied to the rest of the country. That she behaved with such dignity, with such humility, surprised no one. It was, after all, entirely consistent with her conduct as monarch ever since she took the throne in 1952. The more standards slipped in other UK institutions, the more the Queen stood out.
To have been in the public eye for 96 years and live in such a scandal-free manner, one which commanded respect in every corner of the globe, seems almost impossible in the 2020s, in the age of social media. And this is what the UK has lost: a bastion of dignity, decency, discretion and stability, who displayed those qualities in a way no other global statesman or stateswoman could emulate. Even the ever-growing number of republicans in the UK would afford her respect, as it is no understatement to claim that there has been no greater, more dedicated public servant to any country in the history of the world. She is, quite simply, irreplaceable.
A constant amid times of change
The UK that Queen Elizabeth II inherited upon the death of her father in 1952 is very different to that in 2022. Its status as a world power has diminished, and the Empire is now a Commonwealth. The country is one of the most multicultural in the world, having undergone social and economic revolutions. Although the Cold War and the rise of the likes of India and China have seen the UK’s status slip as a hard power, it still exerts a high level of soft power over the world, and the Queen has played a big role in this. The image and perception of a country is an important part of the soft power it exerts, and in its Queen the UK has had a figurehead and ambassador that was the envy of most.
It was telling that in the flurry of tributes from international figures in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death, former US President Donald Trump sent a long, emotional and touching message of condolence. Trump rarely showed deference to anyone in his time in the White House (a pattern that has continued since he was voted out), and yet his afternoon at Buckingham Palace in 2019 seems to have left an indelible impression upon him that led to this rare show of humility. For presidents and prime ministers over the past 70 years, no matter how troubled their history with the UK may have been, time spent in the Queen’s presence was an experience never to be forgotten.
And this matters. When a head of state visited the UK, the Queen, with her warmth, her sense of humour, her place in history, was the ace up the country’s sleeve. A reception at No. 10 Downing Street would often be a routine meeting of elected leaders having high-level conversations, much like they’d had countless times already. A cup of tea with a woman who had received the likes of Winston Churchill, JFK, Tito, Indira Ghandi, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela et al? No other country could make such an unforgettable offering. The favourable impression such meetings would engender did the UK no harm when it came to forming alliances, attracting investment, making trade deals, maintaining its role as a global soft power, even when its hard power credentials were crumbling.
The UK has lost one of its greatest assets in Queen Elizabeth II
King Charles III has been first in line to the throne for 70 years, and he is now left with an unenviable act to follow. He has promised “not to meddle” as monarch, something he didn’t always manage as Prince of Wales, and his life has most certainly not been scandal-free in the way that his mother’s had been. Away from his private life, his estrangement from his youngest son has generated numerous unwanted headlines, while the accusations surrounding his younger brother Prince Andrew have further sullied the royal family’s reputation. While a figure as trustworthy as Queen Elizabeth II was at the helm, the UK had a matriarch of unimpeachable character that helped to deflect some of this controversy. No living royal can offer such a buffer against the scandal, the negative headlines, the brand damage.
The difficulties that King Charles will have to contend with run beyond the domestic too. Barbados removed the Queen as head of state and switched to a parliamentary republic in November 2021, and Jamaica has suggested it will do the same. How many other countries will follow remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely they will be the only two dominoes to fall. In the UK, support for the monarchy has been shrinking, albeit slowly, in recent years, and stood at only 61% in a May 2021 YouGov poll. A majority in the 18–24 age group stated a preference for an elected head of state replacing the monarch. After the inevitable outpourings of grief and patriotism in the coming weeks and months, it seems unlikely that King Charles will reverse this direction of travel.
The UK has already found itself in a period of instability, uncertain of its role in the world in a way that stands in sharp contrast to the confident, modern country that a huge international audience witnessed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London (the highlight of which was, let’s not forget, the Queen skydiving into the stadium after meeting up with James Bond). Brexit left it estranged from its nearest trading bloc, and a rise in nationalism in recent years, both inside the Houses of Parliament and outside, has left the country looking insular and lacking any long-term plan to turn around its stuttering economy. The last thing it needed was a jolt of this nature.
What now for the UK?
Of the many quite staggering statistics to be produced conveying just how lengthy Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has been, the fact that she had been monarch for one-third of the US’s history is perhaps the most striking. That puts her historic significance into context. It is estimated that she visited 117 countries, and while it would be wrong to pretend that she received a universally warm reception in each of them, she could generally rely upon being greeted by streets packed with well-wishers. Again, how many prime ministers, presidents or chancellors could make such a claim? Will any figure from the UK ever be able to command such international respect ever again?
The UK lost many things on 8 September: a monarch, a diplomat, a standard-bearer, an icon, a beacon of stability, a unifying presence, an international ambassador that no other country could hope to match. The country will, in the coming months, miss her reassuring presence, but over the coming years it will miss her global standing, her gravitas, even more. This is not to write off King Charles, who has been preparing for this role for the past seven decades, but the Queen was unique in countless ways that worked to the incalculable benefit of both the UK and UK plc. There is no one in the world that could replace her, as the UK will find out.