Elizabeth II, a modernizing queen who brought the British monarchy into the XNUMXst century


When British historian Sir Ben Pimlott embarked on his biography of Elizabeth II in 1996, some of his colleagues were surprised that he considered the queen worthy of such research. However, the judgment of Pimlott proved to be judicious so much the monarch marked her time.

The political role of the monarchy has particularly fascinated the artistic world. In 2006, the movie The Queen, by Stephen Frears, was about the dilemma she faced after the death of Princess Diana; in 2013, the play The Audience by Peter Morgan showed his weekly meetings with his prime ministers. The room King Charles III by Mike Bartlett (2014), which imagines the difficulties that his heir would experience when succeeding him, and the drama series The Crown, broadcast from 2016 on Netflix, gave her an overall positive and sympathetic image.

The queen of the people

Elizabeth's reign finds its origins in the abdication crisis of 1936, the defining event of the XXe century for the British monarchy. The unexpected abdication of Edward VIII propelled his timid and stuttering younger brother Albert to the throne as George VI. Soon after, he would become the nation's leading figure in World War II.

The war was a fundamental formative experience for her eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, 14, as German bombs began to rain down on London in August 1940.

In the last months of the conflict, she worked as a car mechanic in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service – the women's military service), which means that she could legitimately claim to have participated in what has been called "People's War". From then on, she naturally appeared closer to her fellow citizens than all her predecessors on the throne.

Princess Elizabeth in ATS uniform in April 1945.

In 1947, when Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten – who then became Duke of Edinburgh – her marriage brightened the life of a nation still plagued by post-war austerity and rationing.

A few years later, on February 6, 1952, on the death of her father, the one who would henceforth be named Elizabeth II inherited a monarchy whose political power had continued to decline since the XNUMXth century.e century, but whose role in the public life of the nation seems, on the contrary, to have gained in importance. In the XXe century, monarchs are expected to carry out their ceremonial duties with due gravity while sharing and appreciating the tastes and interests of ordinary people.

The Queen's coronation ceremony in 1953 reconciled these two roles. The ceremonial tradition is tied to the Saxon origins of the monarchy, while its televised transmission brings it into the living room of ordinary people with the latest technology. Ironically, it is because it must now be visible to all that royal ceremonial becomes much more choreographed and more formal than it had ever been before.

The Queen seated on a throne with all her finery, surrounded by bishops
Coronation of Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, June 2, 1952.

Later, in 1969, the Queen revolutionized the general public's perception of the monarchy when, at the instigation of Lord Mountbatten and his son-in-law, television producer Lord Brabourne, she agreed to take part in the documentary Royal Family from the BBC. It's a remarkably intimate portrait of her domestic life, showing her eating breakfast, having a barbecue in Balmoral and popping into the local shops.

The same year, the investiture of her son Charles as Prince of Wales, another televised royal event, was followed in 1970 by the Queen's decision, during a visit to Australia and New Zealand, to break with protocol. and to mingle directly with the crowd that came to see her. These "crowd baths" quickly become a must for any royal trip.

The height of Elizabeth II's popularity came during the 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations, which saw the country decked out in red, white and blue in street parties similar to VE Day in 1945. In 1981, the wedding at Saint Paul's Cathedral of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer would also be an extremely popular event.

The Time of Troubles

The following decades proved to be much more trying. In the early 1990s, the controversy over the Queen's income tax exemption forces the Crown to change its financial arrangements so that the royal family fulfills its tax obligations like everyone else. At the same time, gossip and scandals broke out around the young members of the royal family. Three of Elizabeth II's children will divorce: Princess Anne in 1992, Prince Andrew in 1996 and, even more serious, Crown Prince Charles, also in 1996. The Queen describes the year 1992 as the peak of the scandals,“annus horribilis”.

The revelations about the humiliations Princess Diana had endured in her marriage to Charles reveal to the public a much tougher and less sympathetic side of the royal family, whose image is further degraded when the Queen, uncharacteristically, misjudges the mood of her subjects after Diana's accidental death in 1997. After the tragic death of her very popular ex-daughter-in-law, she is indeed content to follow protocol, staying at Balmoral and babysitting her grandchildren with from her.

This attitude seems cold and insensitive to an audience hungry for displays of emotions that would have been unthinkable in the Queen's younger years. "Where is our Queen?" ", ask the Sun, while the Daily Express intimated to him: “Show us that you care about us! insisting that she break with protocol and lower the Union Jack flying above Buckingham Palace. Not since the abdication of 1936 had the popularity of the monarchy fallen so low.

Briefly taken from the back by this sudden shift in British public opinion, the Queen quickly regained the initiative, speaking to the nation on television and nodding to Diana's funeral procession in a cleverly designed and choreographed televised ceremony.

Its return to favor in the eyes of the majority of the population is manifested in 2002 by the colossal – and unexpected – success of its golden jubilee, inaugurated by the extraordinary spectacle of Brian May, the guitarist of Queen, performing a guitar solo on the roof of Buckingham Palace. Ten years later, when London hosted the Olympics, the Queen was confident enough to agree to appear in a memorable tongue-in-cheek cameo at the opening ceremony, where she appeared to parachute into the stadium from a helicopter with James Bond.

The political domain

While Queen Elizabeth has always sought to keep the crown above party politics, she has nonetheless been fully engaged throughout her life in world affairs. Firmly believing in Commonwealth, despite the fact that its own Prime Ministers had long since lost confidence in this organisation, it mediated conflicts between its member states and provided support and advice to Commonwealth leaders – including those who were strongly opposed to the British government.

His prime ministers have often praised his wisdom and political knowledge, the result of his years of experience and his diligent daily reading of the country's newspapers. Harold Wilson told that attending the traditional weekly audience with the Queen unprepared gave him the same feeling as being questioned at school without having done his homework. It is also well known that the Queen, for her part, found difficult relations with Margaret Thatcher.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have sometimes even opposed the political use of which they could be the object. For example, in 1978, they did not hide their displeasure when then Foreign Secretary David Owen forced them to receive Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife at Buckingham Palace. The Queen also often played a very constructive role in London's foreign policy, giving a more ceremonial and public aspect in support of ministers' work.

Furthermore, she has established good relations with several American presidents, notably Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, and her successful 2011 visit to the Republic of Ireland, during which she surprised her hosts by addressing them in Gaelic, remains a model of the positive impact that a state visit can have.

She was even able to put aside her personal feelings about the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten (her husband's maternal uncle) and to warmly welcome former IRA commander Martin McGuinness when he took office as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007.

In reality, she expressed her own political opinions only exceptionally, and always very briefly. Thus, during a visit to the London Stock Exchange after the financial crash of 2008, she asked dryly why no one had seen the crisis coming.

In 2014, his carefully worded appeal to Scots to think carefully about their vote in the independence referendum was widely – and rightly – interpreted as a pro-union intervention. And as we approach the COP26 conference in 2021 in Glasgow, which she had to give up participation for medical reasons, she expressed irritation how she felt when she saw the insufficiency of political action in the face of the urgency of climate change.

The last years

In recent years, when she turned 95 on April 21, 2021, she had finally started to slow down, delegating more of her official duties to other members of the royal family, including the annual wreath laying at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. In May 2022, she delegates to Prince Charles her most important ceremonial function, the reading of the Speech from the Throne at the official opening of Parliament.

However, it will have retained its ability to cope with crises until the end. In 2020, as the Covid pandemic raged, the Queen, unlike her Prime Minister, sent the nation – from Windsor, where she is confined – a calm and unifying message. His brief address combines solidarity with his people with the assurance that, in a phrase borrowed from Vera Lynn's famous World War II song, “We will meet again” – we will meet again.

This last decade has also brought him its share of sadness. Her grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan Markle, renounced their royal duties, which deeply hurt the ruling family – a wound that was aggravated when, in an interview with American journalist Oprah Winfrey which went around the world, the Sussexes accused the royal family of treating them with cruelty, disdain and even racism.

Shortly after the shock of the interview, Elizabeth lost her husband of 73 years, the prince Philip, died on April 9, 2021 a few months from his 100e anniversary. During her funeral, organized in a small committee due to the requirements imposed by the health crisis, the queen appeared as an unusually lonely, small, masked figure, seated away from the other people present. In the following months, the profound impact of this loss became all too evident, with his health gradually declining.

The pain caused by the Sussexes' estrangement was greatly aggravated by the disgrace, shortly afterwards, of Prince Andrew, his second son and, according to some, his favorite son, whose name is now closely associated with that of American pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. . The world has seen a prominent member of the royal family charged in a US court with sex with minors; in addition, Andrew aggravated his case by granting a disastrous BBC interview.

The Queen reacted to the scandal with remarkable determination: she stripped her son of all his royal and military titles, including the very prestigious “HRH” (His Royal Highness), effectively reducing him to the status of a private citizen. In her eyes, no one, not even those closest to her, should by their behavior undermine all that she had accomplished during her reign to protect and preserve the monarchy.

The success of her platinum jubilee, in 2022, shows how much she has retained the affection of her people; a particularly well-received highlight was a charming cameo showing her having tea with Paddington Bear, a character from children's stories.

A widespread idea in the country is that the queen regularly appeared in the dreams of the British ; but his most regular contact with his subjects was his annual Christmas message, broadcast on television and radio. This address not only reflected his work and commitments over the previous year; she also reaffirmed, with more frankness and clarity than most of her ministers, her deeply rooted Christian faith.

As head of the Church of England, she was a spiritual leader herself and never forgot it. Over the years, the Christmas message has adapted to new technologies, but its style and content have remained unchanged, reflecting the monarchy as it had shaped it.

Under Elizabeth II, the British monarchy survived by changing its outward appearance without altering its public role. Republican critics of the monarchy had long since given up on demanding its immediate abolition and accepted that the Queen's personal popularity would make their goal unachievable in her lifetime.

Elizabeth II, whose 70-year reign was the longest in the history of the British monarchy, leaves to her successor a kind of monarchical republic in which the proportions of the ingredients that make it up - the mystical, the ceremonial, the populism and openness – have been constantly modified so that it remains essentially the same. Political leaders and commentators around the world have long recognized that the Queen has carried out her often difficult and delicate constitutional role with grace… and with remarkable political skill.

Her wisdom and unfailing sense of duty earned her esteem with a blend of respect, esteem and affection that transcended nations, classes and generations. She was immensely proud of the UK and her people, but ultimately she belonged to the world, and the world will mourn her passing.

Sean Lang, Senior Lecturer in History, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Lorna Roberts

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