Post-Elizabethan Britain faces a diminished and difficult future – but don’t count on it | Timothy Garton Ash
After Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, what does post-Elizabethan Britain have in store for us? Whatever you think of the institution of the monarchy in a democracy, there must be immense respect for his 70 years of dedicated service as an impartial head of state and unifying figure in Britain and beyond. Yet much of what she stood for is now in doubt.
It represented the almost paradoxical unity of four nations in one nation, the United Kingdom. But now, the Scots are very likely to leave the British union to join the European union. Northern Ireland increasingly sees its future with the Republic of Ireland, as a kind of informal member of the European Union. Even if Britain does not become just England and Wales again, it will need constitutional reorganization.
She represented continuity, security, certainty. But Britain today faces a cost of living crisis, a soaring national debt, a likely recession and a chronic productivity problem, and it is addressing them under the leadership of an inexperienced prime minister, Liz Truss, with a largely inexperienced cabinet. Not much certainty there. Despite Truss’ characteristic optimism, 69% of respondents in a recent survey said Britain was “in decline”.
The queen has garnered worldwide attention and respect. In fact, for many decades she was probably the most famous woman in the world. About 1 billion people watched it cameo with James Bond at the London Olympics in 2012. At the news of his death, NASA tweeted: “As we join the planet in marking his passing…”. Some of that magic rubbed off on the United Kingdom, the state she embodied. But after Brexit, Britain’s international standing and influence are at a new low.
It facilitated the transition from empire to Commonwealth and, for the United Kingdom, from great imperial power to Euro-Atlantic middle power. But several of the former colonies and dominions of which she was still head of state are actively considering doing without the services of her successor, King Charles III. A Commonwealth expert even suggests there might be a “rush to the door”. Charles III will also have to face increasing calls to recognize and repair the wrongs caused by this empire.
More serious than any potential loss of these largely symbolic overseas offices is the geopolitical uncertainty surrounding Britain itself. In 1962, Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State, joked that Britain had “lost an empire and had yet to find a role”. Forty years later, at the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, it looked like Britain had finally found that role. Somewhat in the spirit of today’s French President, Emmanuel Macron, it was “as well as and”. Britain would be firmly anchored both in Europe and in the Anglosphere. He would have a special relationship with the United States, but also with countries like France, Germany and Poland.
Few outside Britain believe that it has a clear and strong strategic position today. This is the tragedy of my country: to have found a post-imperial role and then to have lost it again. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, the UK has gone from an unhappy but still relatively pragmatic Conservative Prime Minister (Theresa May) to a parody of Winston Churchill (Boris Johnson) and from there to a parody of Margaret Thatcher ( Liz Truss). The proportion of grandiose bluster has increased while that of fact-based realism has decreased. There is a lot of talk about “global Britain”; no one knows what that means.
Yet while comprehensive British coverage of Elizabeth II’s funeral had an element of psychological escapism from current woes, some of the foreign coverage exaggerated the weakness behind the pomp and circumstance. This country still has great assets. Many observers have suggested that after Brexit Britain will be hopelessly split between two hostile tribes, the Remainers and the Leavers. National unity around the NHS during the Covid pandemic, and now in mourning for the Queen, suggests otherwise. Looking at the faces of this week’s mourning crowds and, for that matter, those of the new cabinet (with no white men in any of the four major state offices), you see that Britain has adapted better to diversity that comes from immigration than most other European democracies. Britain has great scientists and universities, some of the world’s best media (as well as some of its worst), creative industries, financial services and technology.
Last week’s seamless and almost simultaneous transition to a new head of state and a new prime minister suggests constitutional democracy in decent shape. Despite some speculation to the contrary, I see no reason to believe that King Charles will be anything other than a dignified and restrained head of state. If the Truss government makes a mess, as it probably will, we will throw them out in the next election, probably in 2024. Unlike the hyper-polarized United States, no one will seriously question whether this was a free and a fair election. (Not even our official Monster Raving Loony party will sing “Stop The Robbery,” let alone wield automatic rifles.) A better proportion of realism and rhetoric will be restored.
Post-Elizabethan Britain is going through very difficult times in the 2020s. But, to invoke the most British of consolation phrases, which one feels the Queen herself must have used from time to time: it could be worse.