The Queen’s Platinum JubileeAn Unprecedented Reign – But What Next for 21st Century Britain?
The Queen’s 70 years on the throne have seen Britain undergo extraordinary change – how will the monarchy’s constitutional and societal role continue to evolve in the years ahead?
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No monarch in history has sat on the British throne for as long as Queen Elizabeth II. As the country celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, it is hard not to conclude that her 70-year reign as the country’s sovereign has been anything other than unprecedented.
Inheriting a nation still recovering from another devastating world war and one that ruled over a quarter of the world’s map, to the post-colonial Commonwealth era; from audiences with Prime Minister Winston Churchill to ‘Cool Britannia’; welcoming 14 American Presidents and confronting the public after the death of Princess Diana; to the annus horribilis and her memorable star turn with James Bond at the 2012 London Olympics – the Queen’s reign has seen Britain undergo extraordinary transformation.
For many, she has provided a stability and continuity that cannot be replicated and we will not see her like again. So where does the institution she has spent her life protecting go from here?
The recent State Opening of Parliament provided some interesting insights.
As usual, the imperial state crown was driven past Westminster Abbey and through the sovereign’s entrance of the Houses of Parliament. ‘Black Rod’ summoned the Commons. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition walked side by side into the Lords, at the head of a huddle of MPs watching on as the Government’s new agenda was read out among gold-plated regalia and upon a throne.
The pomp, flummery and ceremony – all celebrated features of the occasion – were are all still there. And yet, the event looked and felt strange. It was the Queen’s Speech without the Queen.
Presiding over the formality in exactly the same way as his mother has done for 70 years, Prince Charles’ neutral recitations – “to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families” – were criticised by some as out-of-touch and the entire ceremony deemed farcical.
The oddities were reinforced the next day with tabloid headlines declaring ‘I Hope I Did You Proud, Mummy’ next to forlorn images of the Prince of Wales staring at his mother’s crown.
That he followed the Queen’s lead to a tee wasn’t the point. That he isn’t the Queen is.
Whether you love or loathe the monarchy or feel indifferent, most tend to agree that the Queen has been a unifying symbol in Britain – an inoffensive, inspiring figure who has put duty to her country first and who embodies its values in a tangible way.
The 96-year-old acts as a unique bridge between the Britain of Empire and the 21st Century Brexit state it is today in a way no other individual can. When, during the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic, she told the nation that “we will meet again” – echoing the words of Vera Lynn’s famous wartime song – it was reassuring and meaningful in a way only the Queen could have achieved.
As Chris Grey has observed in these pages, “you don’t have to be a flag-waving monarchist to see just how remarkable and important her reign has been in providing a unifying continuity that is so familiar as to be taken for granted”.
Photographs of the Queen at her 1953 Coronation in flowing robes, jewels and crown do not look dated even today, as the Queen is truly a figure of her age. But, take her out of the picture and what are we left with?
This is no mere philosophical pondering, but quite a practical one too – one which this country will soon be forced to confront.
Are we happy with Britain having an unelected monarch as its head of state? Or have we been happy with the particular personality of the Queen fulfilling this role for all these years?
The issue is an important one for two reasons.
Firstly, in other countries with a head of state, this is usually an elected position, with the individual having a specific mandate to act as a check on executive power. In the UK, this is where we have a problem. While the monarch does have a constitutional role with prerogative powers which can theoretically act as a check on the Prime Minister and his government, by convention, the monarch chooses not to exercise these powers – elected representatives are given primacy.
The Queen didn’t intervene to stop Boris Johnson from unlawfully proroguing Parliament to stymie Brexit discussions in 2019 – but, equally, if she had, she could have faced accusations of using her unelected power to ‘meddle in politics’. Is either scenario ideal?
Secondly, the issue matters because of what the monarch’s role in Britain’s constitution says more profoundly about the country as a whole.
As former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall has written for Byline Times, the existence of the monarchy arguably “feeds a culture of hierarchy and deference in our system which is simply outmoded” and “enables a system of titles, privilege and class which infuse our collective unconscious and corrupt our society”. Whether this is reflective of the country we want to be today is eminently worthy of discussion.
As are other considerations. Should the monarch have a more political role and act as a proper check on the Prime Minister and executive, as other heads of state do? Or should the Royal Family be purely ceremonial with no role and no powers in the political system? Either-way, there is currently a lack of clarity around the monarchy’s role in our political system.
Most of us will not have thought much about these questions. Why would we? Perhaps we don’t care for the royals; perhaps we do. Perhaps the demeanour of the Queen, and the respect she commands, has brushed such queries under the carpet. But the Queen’s presence won’t allow us to dodge these issues forever. And more than at any other time, Britain must start to wrestle with what it stands for – and decide explicitly what its vision for the future is.
The Boris Johnson era has exposed the severe shortcomings of our largely unwritten and uncodified constitution, reliant on ‘good chaps’ and outdated conventions. Honour and fair play alone cannot represent any serious statement of intent.
Britain will soon have to move with the times – the question is: will it be able to free itself of its trappings and finally look forward to a future not dominated by the past? As Britain’s citizens, it’s a question that should matter to us all. As the Queen’s subjects, it’s one which we have learned to avoid.