The death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday marks the end not just of an era spanning seven decades, but of one of the most remarkable public careers in modern history. Amid war, geopolitical upheaval, social turmoil and technological revolution, the queen’s decency and grace brought stability to Britain and endeared her to generations all over the world.
It’s difficult to overstate the scale of change that took place under Elizabeth’s watch. When she ascended to the throne in 1952, after the death of her father, King George VI, Britain possessed more than 70 overseas territories. Humanity had yet to be introduced to color television, personal computers or birth-control pills. The Beatles were in grammar school. Several of the 15 prime ministers who eventually served under her were not yet born.
Under Elizabeth, Britain gave up its empire but remained a linchpin of the Atlantic alliance that preserved democracy in Europe and won the Cold War. The queen presided over the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland; Britain’s entry into and exit from the European Union; the privatization of the national airline, telecom and gas companies; and the rise of mass immigration to the UK. Britain’s foreign-born population increased from a fraction of a percent in 1954 to more than 14% today. While the country is in some ways more politically polarized and chaotic than when Elizabeth came to power, it is also richer, healthier, more dynamic and more diverse.
Considering the transformation of British society, perhaps the queen’s most striking achievement has been preserving the institution of the monarchy itself. She has weathered not only shifting social mores but also her own family’s predilection for infighting, tragedy and scandal. She managed to project dignity and composure at all times, even while partaking in occasional high-profile stunts, such as memorably appearing to skydive into the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics. It’s testament to the queen’s leadership that, while support for the monarchy has slipped in recent decades, a solid majority of Britons want it to continue.
Critics will point out that for all her modernizing instincts, Elizabeth failed to scale back the extravagant privileges enjoyed by the royal family and its satraps. In the last full year of her reign, the monarchy’s taxpayer-supported expenditures topped 100 million pounds ($115 million), up 17% over the previous year. The public’s adoration for their sovereign has insulated the monarchy from political pressure to reform; the incoming king, a far less popular figure, may not be so lucky.
All that’s for another time. As she demonstrated one last time during the Covid pandemic, Elizabeth’s role has been to serve as an enduring symbol of reassurance, diligence and integrity. For that she deserves the world’s admiration and gratitude.
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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