Unless you have been living under a rock, and goodness knows I do my best to do so, you will have heard of the recent demise of Queen Elizabeth II. Or, if you’re Scottish, Queen Elizabeth I (Elizabeth Tudor was never queen of Scotland, and yes, there are people who care about that).
Like most people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – wherever the hell that is – I have never known another sovereign. My mother, who is also in her nineties, reminded me that she is now on her fifth monarch: she was born under George V, lived through the (brief) reign of Edward VIII, the longer reign of his brother George VI, the entirety of Elizabeth’s epic shift, and is now a subject of Charles III, as I suppose I am too. But for most of us, she was just there: on the stamps, on the currency, on the telly every Christmas. You might not watch her, but she was there.
The image above gives you some idea of how things have changed. It’s a commemorative re-issue of a postage stamp that was originally priced in pre-decimal currency to a value of about 1p in “new” money; the re-issue price is £1.55, or 155 times as much. Now that’s inflation. The original was issued by the Royal Mail when it was a public institution; the modern version by a private company.
My country has been a monarchy for a very, very long time. I consider my country to be England, although I have Welsh, Scottish and Irish in my ancestry – probably Norse as well – and England has been a united kingdom more or less since the time of Æthelstan, which is over 1,000 years ago. (My American readers may need a little lie-down at this point. That’s fine. I’ll wait.)
In that scheme, the seventy-odd years of Elizabeth’s reign may not seem to be such a big deal. After all, we’ve had long-lived monarchs before: Queen Victoria managed 63 years, and George III before her reigned for almost 60. But the difference is that the country has changed almost beyond recognition during Elizabeth’s reign. Her father, after all, had been a King-Emperor, on whose domains the sun famously never set; she had to make do with the Commonwealth, which is not at all the same thing, let alone the fact that it shares a name with the republican government of Cromwell – who, amongst other things, executed the original King Charles in 1649. So let’s not go there.
When she was newly on the throne, a British government could at least imagine that it could mount a foreign invasion without reference to the United States – I’m referring, of course, to what is euphemistically known as the Suez Crisis. Latterly, British military initiatives have tended to consist of sending our forces wherever the Americans tell us to.
For a while now there has been the unspoken feeling that a turning-point was in the offing, and the death of a queen is as good a peg as another to hang that on, although matters were coming to head in any case. The kingdom is becoming increasingly disunited – both when it comes to the growth of secessionist tendencies. and not only in Scotland, but also on a class level. The current political system is manifestly unable to cope with this, and indeed at this point only seems likely to make matters worse.
It is not exactly a sign of confidence in democracy that there have been facetious calls for Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk and hereditary Earl Marshal, to be put in charge of various failing things after his excellent organisational work for the late Queen’s funeral. At least, I think they’re facetious.
Economically, the country is seizing up. There seems to be no feeling that most people can make a reasonable life for themselves, either now or in the future. God knows what the upcoming winter will be like. I wouldn’t be surprised to see open political violence, now that peaceful protest has effectively been made illegal. Rioting and looting are pretty much a certainty on some level.
Will the new king make much difference to any of this? I’m sure he’ll do his best, not that he has any real power to do much, notwithstanding the attempts in some quarters to portray him as some latter-day Louis XI. He is known to stand for values that are at least somewhat appropriate to our situation. There seems to be every chance that the monarchy will manage to survive the forthcoming upheavals, which is more than can be said for many of our institutions.
I wish His Majesty the best of luck. He’s going to need it, as shall we all.
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