On Thursday afternoon, at Balmoral Citadel in Scotland, Queen Elizabeth II died at 96. She occupied the British throne for 70 years, making her the UK’s longest-reigning monarch.
“Occupied” is probably the important thing phrase right here. Whereas the queen’s official powers have been larger than many would possibly suppose in a constitutional monarchy — in keeping with the letter of the English regulation, the monarch can select to nominate or dismiss the prime minister, for example — in observe they have been by no means exercised to their fullest extent, nor would they’ve ever been.
The queen’s place, if not the continued existence of the British monarchy, was depending on remaining outdoors the precise political sphere. The British authorities of the day dominated in her title from Westminster, however it’s thought of unconstitutional for the monarch to even vote.
In consequence, Elizabeth spent seven many years in one of many world’s most high-profile positions… with out taking direct political motion. She met everybody price assembly, traveled over 1,000,000 miles and visited over 115 international locations, welcomed 15 British prime ministers to workplace — all with out doing something aside from being her usually silent royal self. That made her, in a way, historical past’s biggest spectator.
And the historical past she witnessed was extra than simply the cumulative weight of 70 years. Throughout these many years the world modified because it by no means has earlier than — typically for the more severe, usually for the higher — and Queen Elizabeth II noticed all of it from a singular perch.
The tip of empire
When her father King George VI died on February 6, 1952, the long run queen was at a distant game-viewing camp in Kenya — so distant, in actual fact, that she didn’t obtain phrase of his loss of life and her ascension till 4 hours after the actual fact.
Immediately, in fact, information of the queen’s loss of life unfold throughout the web instantaneously — regardless of efforts to manage the information, it quickly leaked out over Twitter. And Kenya is not a British colonial territory, because it was in 1952, however a rustic of its personal that may quickly have fun the fiftieth anniversary of its independence.
Over the course of her reign, Britain went from greater than 70 abroad territories — like Hong Kong and Singapore in East Asia, Yemen within the Center East, and Guyana in South America — to what’s principally a handful of sparsely populated islands. Even the UK itself could also be destined for dissolution, with an entire Eire an actual risk and Scotland as soon as once more threatening an independence vote.
Because it was when she was topped in 1953, Britain remains to be a nuclear energy, and nonetheless holds one of many 5 everlasting seats on the United Nations Safety Council. However six years after the Brexit vote, Britain’s worldwide affect is at a nadir; or at the least it will be, if it didn’t appear more likely to fall even additional because the economically troubled nation girds for what’s shaping as much as be a cost-of-living disaster this winter.
To be clear, the evaporation of empire that Elizabeth witnessed is nothing to lament. If self-determination — the best of individuals to resolve their very own future within the worldwide order — is sacrosanct, then the truth that greater than 700 million individuals on the time of Elizabeth’s coronation successfully lived beneath the rule of a overseas authorities was a historic incorrect that needed to be righted.
70 years is a very long time
Anybody who sits on a throne for 70 years will witness a altering world. However Elizabeth’s reign was so distinctive as a result of the seven many years she spent as queen have been so distinctive.
Evaluate Elizabeth to a different historic monarch who reigned for nearly as lengthy: King Louis XIV of France, the fabled “Solar King.” (Louis was technically king for longer than Elizabeth was queen, however he spent the primary eight years of his reign beneath a regency. I’ll let the students of royalty kind it out.) Between Louis’s ascension to the throne in 1643 and his loss of life in 1715, per-capita GDP barely budged in France. Progress, as we all know it, was primarily stagnant, because it was nearly in all places on the earth.
Throughout Elizabeth’s time, nonetheless, per-capita GDP in the UK greater than tripled, a part of a wave of financial progress that started within the 1800s with the Industrial Revolution, and really took off globally within the postwar period. Life expectancy within the UK was just below 70 years in 1953 — immediately it’s north of 80.
And the modifications have been even larger over these many years in most of the creating international locations that when made up the British Empire. Shortly earlier than the queen’s loss of life, India — which spent practically a century beneath direct British rule — overtook the UK because the world’s fifth-largest economic system.
A lot of that progress was the results of technological modifications that Elizabeth witnessed firsthand. She was the primary British monarch to have her coronation televised reside, despatched her first e mail in 1976, and her first tweet in 2014. Her first Christmas message to her topics was broadcast over the radio — her ultimate one may very well be streamed on YouTube.
Britain in 1953 was an overwhelmingly white nation, one the place girls had solely had totally equal voting rights for 25 years. The UK immediately is a multi-ethnic democracy, the place one latest candidate for prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is a Hindu whose dad and mom have been East African immigrants of Indian descent, and the place the eventual winner, Liz Truss, is the nation’s third feminine PM.
Homosexuality was solely legalized in Britain in 1967, greater than a decade into her reign. In 2018, Lord Ivar Mountbatten, a cousin of Elizabeth’s, grew to become the first British royal to marry their same-sex companion.
If a part of the queen’s enchantment was her sheer longevity, that longevity mattered all of the extra as a result of it unfolded over a interval of unprecedented change. The 18th-century France that existed on the finish of Louis XIV’s reign would have appeared hardly completely different to the younger king greater than 70 years earlier than, by way of know-how, economic system, and social mores.
The UK of 2022 — and certainly the world as an entire — can be unrecognizable to the 25-year-old lady who was anointed at Westminster Abbey in 1953. And the tempo of change to return, for King Charles III and his successors, appears solely more likely to speed up. A kind of modifications, within the UK at the least, will assuredly be the monarchy itself. As Dylan Matthews wrote in 2015, constitutional monarchies can have actual worth, guaranteeing one determine is of politics with out being in them. However that position could have died with the queen. The trimmings of monarchy could also be transferrable to Charles, a determine all too acquainted to the British public, however probably not the spirit embodied by Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth II didn’t trigger any of those modifications of her reign, however she did witness them from a uniquely privileged vantage. And her passing is a reminder of simply how lengthy 70 years actually is — particularly these 70 years.
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