Historian Chris Bambery looks back at the life of Queen Elizabeth II, who has died at 96. He finds she was a potent symbol of the British state who will be hard for the establishment to replace.
Queen Elizabeth II has died at the age of 96, after 7 decades of rule. Throughout this time, she has performed the political function of representing the state abroad, and providing a potent symbol of British national unity at home. Understanding her times cast some light on how the British state arrived in its present form.
At the time of Princess Elizabeth’s accession in 1952, upon the death of her father, George VI, Britain was still recovering from the trauma of World War 2. A national story of plucky Britain alone defying the Nazis in 1940 was in vogue. Films portraying the exploits of the royal family’s flyers, sailors and soldiers played to full houses, and veterans graced royal galas. The young Princess had served in the women’s army during the war, admittedly far from danger.
The Second World War was very important in restoring the popular image of a family dented by the abdication of Edward VIII, his affair, and his association with Nazism. With the accession of George VI, a myth was carefully cultivated of a Royal family as leading Britain’s national resistance. The truth was the King and family slept at Windsor during the Blitz and did not have to endure rationing. Nonetheless, the propaganda offensive endured, and transferred some of its power to the person of Elizabeth.
When she was crowned in 1953, wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill was back in Downing Street leading a Conservative government. He coined the term a “new Elizabethan age” (in reference to Elizabeth I of England) to suggest all would flourish under the new monarch, with Britain strutting the world stage as before. The coronation was greeted by the “British” conquest of Mount Everest. In fact the first to climb it were a New Zealander and a Nepali, but no matter – they were citizens of the Empire.
Despite the undignified scuttle from both Palestine and India, with the horrors partition resulting in both cases, the British Empire still ruled sizeable areas of the globe. British troops were newly engaged in the struggle against Communism, including direct fighting alongside the USA in Korea. The Windrush migrants who arrived at Tilbury didn’t need passports because they were entitled to come as citizens of Empire. That would change as politicians drove a racialist panic in post-war Britain.
Despite these appearances, the Empire was fading away. Indian independence was a body blow. During the war Canada, Australia and New Zealand had been reliant on US, not British protection and they stayed in the American camp. The Queen and the rest of the royals would get used to a new function; touring former colonies to stand to attention and watch the Union flag being replaced by that of newly independent nation-states.
The decision, made by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, to develop its own atomic bomb and to maintain high levels of military spending with bases around the globe, as well as joining the Americans in Korea, was decisive. With no such commitments the economies of Germany and Japan would outstrip Britain, which spent money on warfare rather than investing it to benefit economic growth and research and development.
Three years after the Coronation the debacle of the Suez invasion would mark the end of Britain’s position as a great power. Even so those pretensions would remain and it would be decades before the Empire would become the target of satire, historians would reveal its brutal reality and protests would strike statues of slavers and imperialists like Cecil Rhodes.
But the decision to apply belatedly for membership of what is now the European Union was a reflection that new realities could intrude. Twice British applications for membership were vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle before Edward Heath got agreement on joining. It is widely rumoured Elizabeth never liked Britain’s membership of the EU, seeing it as belittling Britain’s position in the world and hers as queen.
The “new Elizabethan” era – a proposed golden age – never materialised. Instead, there was a long period of decline as a global power. But the Queen was a link to our supposed “Finest Hour.” Post-war myths polished a new institutional reality of nation-building at home, and a new alliance with US power abroad – complimented eventually by a role in the EU. Elizabeth II’s reign performed an important role in providing an image of continuity in that process. Charles and William cannot follow that.
The monarchy has profoundly changed in other aspects. In the 1980s and 90s there was a conscious turn to adopt what we now call celebrity culture. Princess Diana was, of course, the star act, but other younger royals appeared on TV shows, were interviewed in mass circulation magazines and tried to emulate Diana’s glamour.
Diana’s funeral and the mass outpouring of grief accompanying it was both the high-point of celebrity royalty, and the beginning of significant public backlash against the institution. Having built-up the image of modern glamour, the royal press machine proved incapable of controlling its appeal and the government of the day (led by No.10 spin-doctor Alistair Campbell) was forced to take over the media operation.
The family, now heavily commodified, has never since recovered its prestige. As Karl Marx once observed: “…the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe”. And so, the prestige and mystery of the royals has largely disappeared.
Royal weddings and royal babies sold newspapers and drove up TV audiences, but so have revelations about Charles cruelty to his former wife and Prince Andrew’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. The final outcome of commercialisation – the privatisation of one wing of the family (Harry and Meghan) and their offshoring to more lucrative US markets, has been another blow.
Though Elizabeth took some flak over the family’s response to Diana’s death, she generally endured in her image of continuity. Her inheritors represent only the shop-soiled goods.
Pillar of the Sate
The monarchy is important for the British ruling class. It heads a form of parliamentary rule which has existed for nearly two centuries, centred on an elected House of Commons, a hereditary House of Lords and monarchy. This is central to a carefully crafted British identity and the myth that this system has saved us from invasions, occupation, fascism and Bolshevism. It’s central to the way things are supposedly done empirically, relying on common sense not ideology.
The monarch dissolves parliament, appoints and dismisses prime ministers, assents to legislation, signs treaties, declares war and appoints judges. These powers are generally exercised by the prime minister under royal prerogative. Using this prerogative, a British prime minister can declare war without a debate in parliament. Using this same framework Margaret Thatcher banned trade unions at the Cheltenham ‘spy centre,’ GCHQ in 1984. Whole areas of secondary legislation are handled by the Privy Council – the members of which are appointed for life, and these ‘orders in council’ never come before parliament. MPs swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen not to the people they represent. The security and intelligence forces pledge loyalty to the monarch, not parliament or the government. That allows them to operate avoiding parliamentary scrutiny when required. The monarch has been symbolic of the state, ideologically important at points of national stress and transition, and forms a central pillar of the uncodified constitutional apparatus.
And though the royal institution is presented as timeless, it was largely re-invented in the last quarter of the 19th century. Queen Victoria had withdrawn from public after the death of her consort, Albert, leading to a rise in criticism of the royals. To stave off the accompanying rise in republicanism and of the socialist movement, building up the prestige of the royals came to be seen as vital.
The Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, persuaded Victoria to leave her purdah. The final decades of the century saw the creation of most of what we identify with royalty, the invention of the royal wedding ceremonies, the state opening of parliament, plus the building in London of the Admiralty Arch and the Mall as a royal parade route.
In a period of growing imperial tensions, Victoria became emperor of India. The population of the Raj were not consulted, of course, and she never visited the place. The monarch’s role has remained distinctly international to this day.
The royal institution is not the only part of the British state and civil society to have lost some of its traditional appeal in recent decades.
In 1953 when Elizabeth took the throne the three pillars of the British political system were the monarchy, the Tory Party and the established churches. At Westminster aristocrats still governed when the Tories were in office.
Today the Conservative Party is a shadow of what it was in the 1950s. It has an ageing membership concentrated in the South East of England whose bitterness at the condition of Britain was reflected in their 65 percent support for Brexit, also indicating their disconnect with the priorities of the capitalist class. It might back a Tory vote come election time but that’s because they have no other choice.
The Tories are still the party of capital – particularly finance – but this class element has internationalised and broken many traditional links with the base of British society. The likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson are a pale reflection of Churchill, Eden, MacMillan and Hume.
Their espousal of social liberalism (though to the exclusion of certain groups) alienates the bulk of Tory members and supporters. They put up with Cameron because he promised to deliver election victory. When he delivered a coalition with the Liberals in 2010 they turned on him, pushing for Brexit.
Religiosity has declined to a massive degree in the time of Elizabeth’s reign. The Church of England (which the monarch is titular head of) and the Church of Scotland have both suffered shrinking congregations, public scandals, weakened financial positions and a declining importance as reproducers of ideology. In their plight, they have often become critical of other parts of the establishment.
With these, and a range of civil society organisations – from the Labour party and trade unions to the traditional media and banks – having lost much of their purchase in mass society, the monarchy remains an important adhesive. So it could be that another re-invention will be attempted, as with Victoria.
This will not be a simple transition to make. We are witnessing the decline of the ‘national’, post-Empire state. The ruling elite of state managers and capitalists have not proven capable, so far, of generating a new model, ethos and economic strategy to replace it. Elizabeth’s heir, King Charles, will face a great challenge.