The End of the Second Elizabethan Era
At just after six thirty on the evening of Thursday, 8 September 2022, two footmen came to the railings at the front of Buckingham Palace in London, and attached a wooden frame to them, containing the message that announced, in the traditional fashion, the death of a monarch. This is the way things are always done in the realms of royal protocol. But it is a mark of the huge amounts of change that happened during the reign of Elizabeth II that even this announcement was reported as it happened, across radio, television and the Internet. She was after all the first British monarch to make a television address, send an email, or even a tweet. In the seventy years that she was Queen the world has changed around her almost beyond comprehension. The first Prime Minister to greet her was Winston Churchill, himself born while her great-great-grandmother, Victoria, was Queen, and Empress of India. The last Prime Minister she welcomed at Balmoral was Liz Truss, a mere three days before her death. In between there were thirteen others, of whom six survive¹.
When Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, the daughter of the Duke of York was born on 21 April 1926, there was no thought of her being Queen. Her uncle David was Prince of Wales, and would eventually be king, to continue the House of Windsor. Her parents should have lived a fairly quiet life of low-key public duty, but enough privacy. Events a decade later would change all of that, and forever alter the course of her life.
Her reign began still in the shadow of a hideous and costly war. The Pyrrhic victory won saw the effective end of this country as an imperial power. India’s independence came a handful of years before she ascended the throne. Within another handful of years, the aftermath of the Suez crisis had sealed that diminished status. The young Queen saw her nation’s role change, and she was instrumental in that change happening. While the political upheavals were sizeable, the social and technological changes that went with them were no less seismic. The old deferences and hierarchies shifted, and Royalty had to move with them. It was not always easy, and it didn’t always go well. But she remained.
No British monarch has reigned this long, and many of us have never known a country where she did not sit atop its institutions. At primary school I remember the Silver Jubilee, and even that came amidst social strife. The Britain of the 1970s was a fractious, nervous and fearful place in some ways, but even so for those of my age, 1977 was a mostly happy memory. And she remained.
Even in the face of the insanity that bloomed like algae through the culture in the early autumn of 1997, and from which we as a nation have probably never really recovered, she remained. Through every tide and upheaval, every uncertainty, and even the occasional triumph, she has remained.
Now she’s gone, and it’s perhaps almost poetic that this is the time she has departed the stage. She dies leaving behind a country in the convulsions of social and political change it may well not even survive, grappling with circumstances with which it is desperately unfamiliar. In those far-off, austere post-war days, Britain still had a sense of confidence (and some not misplaced entitlement) that it had some kind of place in the world, even as the Empire dwindled. Today, it has dismantled some of its most powerful and important alliances, and fallen prey to the whims of those preoccupied by exceptionalism and the rapacity of their own greed. At a time when the national consciousness has needed the steadying influence of such continuity, it has gone, to be replaced by a maelstrom of uncertainty and confusion, with no sense of where good or sensible leadership will come from. There is nervousness about the new King, and whether he can fill that void, coupled with a singular lack of confidence in the political institutions and leaders we find ourselves saddled with at this point.
If the Second Elizbethan Age has, for the most part, been one of peace and progress, then its end is a storm of entropy and confusion, coupled with a genuine fear that all of that is about to collapse around us. Those times have come to an end. What waits for us next in the New Carolean Age?
¹ Those six being: Johnson, May, Cameron, Brown, Blair, and finally Major, now the oldest living PM.