World Watch: The Death of Elizabeth II

The Situation

On September 19, elaborate funeral exercises brought normal life to a halt in Britain and throughout the world. Millions of people were glued to their television screens–or lined along the streets of London–to honor the life of Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, who died eleven days earlier.

The Queen died at Balmoral Castle in rural Scotland, her longtime summer residence. Her death was shortly followed by days of Scottish rituals in Edinburgh before her coffin arrived in London, lying in state at Westminster Hall for six days before a funeral service at Westminster Abbey, the traditional site of royal funerals, which was attended by monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers from around the world. After the service, the coffin was driven thirty miles to Windsor Castle, where the late monarch was buried next to her late spouse, Prince Philip.

Immediately following the queen’s death, King Charles III assumed the position of monarch. In a televised address following her death, Charles mourned the death of his “darling Mama” and swore to “uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation” as monarch for the rest of his life. The first British monarch to take power in seventy years, Charles faces a nation – and a Commonwealth of former colonies – in flux about the future of the monarchy.

What’s Happened?

At her coronation ceremony on June 2, 1953, the Queen swore an oath to govern the British people alongside the peoples of “Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon [modern-day Sri Lanka], and…possessions and the other territories.” Though Britain was far from the peak of its imperial age, it had yet to relinquish many of its colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. For nations that had become independent of British rule, the British monarch often remained their constitutional head of state.

Today, the British government is sovereign over fourteen small island territories, ten of which have any permanent inhabitants; the most populated of these are the Cayman Islands, with just under 66,000 residents in 2020. Many of Britain’s former colonies have chosen only to maintain the monarch as a figurehead, rather than their head of state. And in countries where the monarch remains head of state, the monarchy is often a source of controversy for citizens who see it as a relic of a dark colonial past. The Caribbean nation of Barbados removed the British monarch as constitutional head of state in 2021; Jamaica plans to follow suit by 2025.

These changes to life on a global scale have occurred in conjunction with significant changes to life in mainland Britain. In 1953, women made up a mere 32% of Britain’s employed population. Today, they comprise 48%. Similarly, at that time, 9% of Britain’s national income went to military defense, more than the funds given to the National Health Service and public education combined. This, too, has changed: the 2020 statistic was 2.25%. These shifts are but two of the societal changes that took place under Elizabeth II’s reign. Population has increased, as have both the life expectancy and the median age. 51% of births in Britain today are outside marriage, compared to only 5% in 1953. The coal industry–which employed around 700,000 Britons in 1953–is now almost nonexistent. And a Britain dominated by white Christians has faded into the distance as an influx of foreigners have molded modern Britain into a tapestry of races, ethnicities, and religions.

Through this overwhelming change, Elizabeth II was a constant. Seeing herself as a symbol of British unity and continuity, she faithfully went about her duties–in the words of The Economist, “opening things and meeting people, as visibly as possible.” Though slow to fully condemn the brutality of Britain’s colonial past, she shared a dance with Kwame Nkrumah, the president who led Ghana to independence from Britain, during her visit to Ghana in 1961, and, on a monumental trip to Ireland in 2011, began her remarks at a state dinner in the Irish language, the use of which was suppressed when Ireland was under British rule. Her measured, dutiful approach paid off with her approval rating, which has fluctuated between 60% and 80% in the last thirty years.

With her death, a symbol of continuity through change in Britain is gone, with consequences that will echo throughout the world.

What’s Next?

A very impactful change happened immediately after the Queen died, as, according to custom, Britain’s national anthem changed from “God Save the Queen” to “God Save the King.” Coinage and stamps in Britain–which have depicted Elizabeth II for decades–have begun to bear Charles III’s likeness, though they will co-circulate with coinage and stamps of the late Queen for years to come. New British passports, which the government must formally authorize, will now be authorized in the King’s name. And Buckingham Palace released new royal insignia for Charles III, which will begin to pop up across Britain in everything from mailboxes to money.

Potential changes to the monarch’s role in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth may be even bigger. The King’s domestic approval rating doubled to over 60% following his accession to the throne, suggesting that his leadership since his mother’s passing has struck a positive tone with Britons. But his track record makes him no match for the late Queen’s reputation.

The King came under public scrutiny as Prince of Wales during his very public split with Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in 1997; his faithfulness to Diana was questioned as he pursued a relationship with the former Camilla Parker-Bowles, who is now Queen Consort. He has been outspoken in his criticism of modern architecture, advocacy for alternative medicines and therapies, and, most notably, promotion of sustainable agriculture and food production. As Prince of Wales, he tried to raise numerous issues with the government of the day–he held thirty-six meetings with government officials between 2010 and 2013 alone. And his comments likening Russian president Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler following the 2014 invasion of Crimea caused a notable diplomatic kerfuffle between Britain and Russia.

In the Commonwealth and in mainland Britain, public opinion on the monarchy is likely to shift further as Charles ascends to the throne. These shifts have already begun in Caribbean nations like Barbados and Jamaica; their governments have begun (or, in Barbados’ case, completed) the process of removing the monarch as head of state. A 2020 survey in Australia showed that 62% of Australians favored an Australian head of state after Charles’ accession. A recent Canadian survey found about half of Canadians favoring the end of the monarchy in Canada after Charles’ accession. And within the British mainland, republican groups see Elizabeth II’s death as an opportune moment to get their message across, even though there is no constitutional process for Britain to remove the monarchy entirely. Graham Smith, chief executive of campaign group Republic, said about Charles’ accession, “It is an opportunity to campaign, but it is not going to be an easy campaign.”

Elizabeth II’s death is a consequential moment in British history. As the world bids farewell to a longstanding symbol of continuity amid an ever-changing world, the new King Charles is challenged with challenge of measuring up. How will he respond?