The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can Britain find a new source of identity in a post-Elizabethan age?

Queen Elizabeth II outside Westminster Abbey in London on March 29. (Tom Nicholson/Reuters)
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Stryker McGuire, who lives in London, is a former editor at Newsweek and Bloomberg.

On May 10, a centuries-old ritual will mark the start of a new session of Parliament: the Queen’s Speech. Tradition calls for the monarch to read out the government’s legislative agenda for the coming year. Across the 70 years of her reign, Elizabeth II has failed only twice to read the Queen’s Speech: when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew in 1959 and with Prince Edward in 1963.

But the queen is 96 and tested positive for the coronavirus in February, leading her to miss several royal engagements. So contingency plans have been drawn up for someone else — probably Prince Charles, heir to the throne, possibly a government minister — to stand in for her.

The queen’s frailty is, needless to say, much more than a personal or family matter. The monarchy, though it sometimes looks like a waxwork on the tourist trail, is a cornerstone of British identity, one of the few remaining bridges between today’s Britain and its imperial past. A post-Elizabeth monarchy will look nothing like hers. You don’t need polling (or “The Crown”) to tell you that many British people do not regard the next-generation Windsors as worthy successors.

A devalued monarchy will leave stranded the question of national identity that has bedeviled Britons and their leaders since the end of World War II, when decline and decolonization completed the undoing of what had once been the largest empire on Earth.

Ever since, the United Kingdom has struggled to define its role in the world. In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair said he saw a Britain that was “emerging from its post-empire malaise.” His prescription was for Britain to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States while playing a leadership role in the European Union.

During Blair’s decade in office, Britain fought three wars — in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq — alongside the United States. The Iraq debacle ultimately drove Blair from office and strained U.S.-Britain relations.

As for the European Union, the British people’s ambivalent relationship with Europe turned increasingly sour after the 2008-2009 financial crisis as the British economy slowed and resentment against immigration, especially from Eastern Europe, grew. Pressure to leave the European Union mounted. “Take Back Control” became the new siren song of sovereignty: exiting the European Union would somehow restore the country’s sense of self and help put the “great” back in Great Britain.

Boris Johnson persuaded Britons to vote for Brexit in 2016, and Britain formally withdrew from the European Union in January 2020, six months after he became prime minister. But Brexit’s ambitions remain unfulfilled. Johnson grandly proclaimed the aim of founding a new “Global Britain,” with its unmistakable imperial yearnings. The reality has been far less impressive. His government, having abandoned the favorable trading arrangements it enjoyed as a member of the European Union, has managed to cobble together only a handful of bilateral trade deals.

It hasn’t helped that covid-19 hung over Johnson’s time in office. Yet even so, his government’s Office for Budget Responsibility last year estimated that the long-term impact of Brexit on economic growth will be more than twice as damaging as that of the pandemic.

Through much of this time, the monarchy and Elizabeth herself were constants the British people could cling to. It wasn’t until 1992 — which the queen called her “annus horribilis” — that things began to go wrong. A series of personal embarrassments had beset the royal family, including revelations about Diana, Princess of Wales’s unhappiness in her marriage to Charles. Then, in 1997, the queen perplexed her subjects with her awkward response — she was silent for five days — to Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris.

As for Charles, he has never managed to find a secure place in the hearts of Britons. Over the years, his son Prince Harry would become estranged from the family, settling in Southern California with his American wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

In March, Prince William, second in the line of succession, got a taste of the monarchy’s fading luster when he and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, toured nations of the Commonwealth, the last remnants of the empire. They met with anti-royal protests, bitter criticism of the family’s failure to address legacies of slavery, and news that Jamaica is planning to join a handful of other Caribbean states that have discarded the queen as head of state.

Most embarrassing of all, Andrew, said to be the queen’s favorite son, became enmeshed in a sordid scandal through his association with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, ultimately reaching an out-of-court settlement in February with Virginia Giuffre, who accused him of sexually assaulting her when she was 17.

The fragility of the monarchy and the Commonwealth, the obsequiousness of the lopsided “special relationship” with the United States, the smoke-and-mirrors marketing of Brexit — against this backdrop, Britain’s determination to construct a national identity beyond its means looks like overreach. This is a nation with assets envied by the rest of the world: the near universality of its language, its deep-rooted democratic and educational institutions, the BBC, a financial center on a par with New York. Vainglorious attempts to resurrect an empire that’s long gone are as unseemly as they are unnecessary.

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