The death of the queen marks the end of our Elizabethan era

British monarchs may no longer be as central to the nation as they once were, but Elizabeth II was truly irreplaceable

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This is the end of the Elizabethan era, our Elizabethan era. It is a turning point of enormous significance for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, (to give the Queen’s realm its full title), for 54 countries of the British Commonwealth and the 14 Commonwealth countries of which our Queen was also their Queen and head of state.

Some of those countries - Barbados for example - have already decided that the future British monarch will not be their head of state. Others - Jamaica and Australia most notably - may follow suit. It is a reminder that as the British nation mourns and a well-rehearsed Buckingham Palace schedule of events comes into place, we will go from national mourning to the coronation of a new monarch but then into a period of difficult reflection about the future.

The choreography of what happens when a British monarch dies is both traditional – in the Queen’s case it has been planned since the 1960s – and fluid, in that it is constantly updated or reviewed several times a year. Some of the plans were made public a few years ago under the codename "London Bridge is down". But beyond the traditions and, undoubtedly, a well rehearsed ceremony and many reminiscences of the Queen’s remarkable reign, we should begin with reflections about the past.

For many British people, Queen Elizabeth II has simply always been there. She was a constant presence in our national life, for 70 years and more, the glue of the British nation. It began in her time as a young princess in the Second World War during the Blitz. She stayed in London rather than (as she could have done) sailing to safety in Canada. As Queen she represented continuity when the British Empire ended and the British Commonwealth began. She saw us through Suez Crisis and the Cold War to the new Britain of the 21st century.

For many British people, Queen Elizabeth II has simply always been there

She also embodied a sense of reconciliation, not just with Commonwealth nations which had suffered the legacy of slavery or, in the case of India and Pakistan, the bloodshed and bitterness of partition or, as in southern Africa and elsewhere, racism and apartheid. Few will ever forget the extraordinary moment of reconciliation which came with the Queen’s handshake in Northern Ireland in June 2012 with the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. McGuinness wished the Queen well in Irish, as he said goodbye, words which in translation are "Goodbye and God bless” – words almost unthinkable in the past bitterness of British and Irish history.

But as the UK now enters a period of great and genuine mourning, there will also have to be a period of deep introspection. Things are not going well in the Britain of the 2020s. Great Britain was formed at the end of the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. When she died, the Scottish King James VI also became King of England. In 1604 (now called James I) he declared: “We have thought good to discontinue the divided names of England and Scotland … and resolve to take … the name and style of Kings Great Britain."

But if Great Britain began ending divisions at the close of our first Elizabethan era, at the end of our own 21st century Elizabethan era we are fraught with new divisions. In Scotland there is agitation for independence and therefore the end to the union. There is renewed discontent in Northern Ireland. The pound is at its lowest level against the dollar for almost four decades. Since the Brexit vote in 2016 the United Kingdom has been rocked by a series of upheavals which have left us with our fourth prime minister in six years. Liz Truss met the Queen at Balmoral in one of the Queen’s last formal constitutional duties. As Prime Minister Ms Truss is now in her first days in office trying to come to terms with a multiplicity of problems and witnessing the end of one of the great enduring symbols of Britishness.

There will be challenges in other ways, too. The new monarch, Charles, has served the longest apprenticeship of any of his predecessors in British history. There will undoubtedly be a time of coming together under the new king, but the scandals and rows which have attached themselves to some members of the Royal family will endure. Prince Andrew remains sidelined. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have chosen a kind of exile.

In Britain we need to remind ourselves that the monarch is an essential pillar of the British constitution but the rest of the royal family may be an adornment, or in some cases an embarrassment, but they are not central to the nation even if they are essential to tabloid newspapers. The succession is assured. The monarchy will continue. But the Queen in a different sense has been irreplaceable. She was not just a Queen, or our British Queen. Thomas Kielinger, an old friend of mine and a distinguished German writer, once wrote a book about her titled “Die Konigin” - the Queen. I challenged him on the title saying there was more that one Queen in the world. "Oh no," he said. "There really is only one. THE Queen." Thomas was right.

Published: September 08, 2022, 6:40 PM
Updated: September 10, 2022, 11:41 AM