Elizabeth II’s tour de force was to accept the changes in the United Kingdom, including its decline.
Elizabeth II, the 40th British monarch since William the Conqueror, has died at the age of 96 after reigning for 70 years. During that time, after succeeding to the throne in 1952, she saw 15 prime ministers – from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss – to whom she appeared both knowledgeable and demanding in discussions.
Although she had no power, she was the source of it, and this is what made her influential beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. She symbolized not only the unity and continuity of the nation, but also the values of freedom that she embodied, from the war against the Nazis up to the Covid epidemic, during which she called on the country to emulate the spirit of the Blitz. She strengthened the authority and legitimacy of the monarchy and modernized it both in the way it functioned – by relaxing protocol, rationalizing its finances and making its income taxable – and in its relationship with the people, particularly in its use of modern means of communication, from television to social media.
Elizabeth II’s tour de force – similar to the accomplishment of General de Gaulle in France when the 5th Republic was founded – is to have accepted the major changes that took place in the United Kingdom after the end of World War II – including its decline – whilst enabling her subjects to remain proud of their country and its history.
The way in which the United Kingdom has changed since 1950 is, in many ways, representative of the way in which Europe has been marginalized and the world has been de-Westernized. Britain, which once had a huge empire covering five continents and governed a third of the world’s population, has been reduced to a nation of 69 million inhabitants. It was a proud colonial power that, in the 1956 Suez crisis, had to come to terms – just as France did – with its lower status when faced by the bipolar nature of the Cold War dominated by the USA and the Soviet Union. Britain managed to transcend this fallback by creating the Commonwealth and by the grand illusion of having a special relationship with the USA.
At the same time, having managed a sublimely heroic resistance to Nazi Germany, then at the height of its expansion, the United Kingdom paid the price for it with unrelenting economic decline and a chronic social crisis. After making a good many mistakes, the UK took up the only alternative strategy that was open to it and joined in the building of Europe in 1973. Then came liberal shock therapy applied by the iron hand of Margaret Thatcher, which enabled a workable business model to be rebuilt, but very nearly causing civil war.
Britain took a gamble on deregulation and opening up markets – speeded up by the fall of the Soviet Union and globalization – and this led to its obtaining an ideal position as a bridgehead for international companies and investors who wanted access to the single European market – a role comparable to that of Hong Kong with regard to China, until it was brutally “normalized” by Xi Jinping in 2020. All this was symbolized in the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994. Aided by exceptional diplomacy, the UK managed to achieve political and legal influence within the EU, although it did not adopt the Euro nor was part of the Schengen zone, a policy that gained it a 52% discount on its contribution. Also from a European standpoint, the belated call for the building of the community that was forced upon it simply amplified its power.
However, this recovery was ruined by Brexit which, from many points of view, was the worst setback of Elizabeth II’s reign, and the one with the most serious consequences, although she was in no way responsible for it. The populist fervor that gripped the Conservative party under the influence of Boris Johnson in the 2016 referendum, then the way in which a maximum-level Brexit was orchestrated and put into effect on 1st January 2021, ruined the British model and did not provide it with any credible substitute.
King Charles III is coming to power at a time when Elizabeth II’s legacy is in danger, and when the United Kingdom is going through some of the most difficult moments in its history.
The United Kingdom is facing a perfect storm: a combination of recession, inflation over 10%, the after-effects of the Covid epidemic, an energy crisis brought on by the war in Ukraine, and a rising desire for independence among the countries that make up the Union… But, to respond to all this, it has a monarchy and a political system that have been weakened, and a destabilized parliamentary democracy, as shown in the the fact that there have been four Conservative prime ministers in the course of seven years. If Charles III wants to address the issue, then he has no other choice than to change everything in order for things to remain the same.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 11th September 2022)