The Queen died yesterday. Even though I have felt an increasing republican sentiment over the last few years, her death feels like the end of a very long chapter for Britain. Elizabeth became Queen of a Britain that most politicians for the last decade have held up as the ideal.
The Platonic Britain was draped in the glory of winning the War, perfumed with the 1950’s optimism imported from America, and nestled in a comfortable but dissipating cloud of global power and empire. The Queen embodied this, ascending to the throne in Kenya, televising all the pomp and circumstance of her coronation, and privately enjoying a thoroughly modern aesthetic.
But the Britain that actually existed in the 1950’s was quite a lot more nuanced than this ideal. Britain was on the ‘winning’ side of the War, but rationing was not a distant memory, cities were riddled with bomb sites, and the country faced massive social upheaval from factors including resettlement of bombed out communities in new towns and soldiers returning from the battlefields. Growing consumerism fuelled by new technologies, and an evolving media with the launch of ITV were changing people’s ideas of how life could be lived. And the empire was slowly, and then quickly, collapsing, as people seized the opportunity to govern themselves.
I think the second Elizabethan age has been amongst the most transformative in British history. All of the seeds of change that were present at the Queen’s coronation grew over the 70 years of her reign. British society and social norms broadened to encompass the culture of all classes, doing away with a sense of deference in public life. I am not sure this deference was ever widespread, but the visibility of working class culture, and the culture of the many people who came to Britain in the 20th century, has undoubtedly grown during this time. Staid upper and middle class traditions, while still present, must now share the spotlight with Love Island, and long may it be so.
Less positively, an extreme form of consumerist capitalism took root through the ’80’s and onwards to today. I am always struck by this when I return to the UK. The ‘Lastminute.com London Eye’, the ‘Emirates Air Line’ cablecar, and most of all, the enormous ease of shopping. I think this particular form of capitalism, more than any other domestic factor, has changed the face of Britain in the last 70 years.
Besides the domestic, Britain’s place in the world has shifted beyond recognition. From a global power, forcibly holding countries in its grip, sustaining itself with imperial trade, Britain has become just another big country.
The domestic transformation of Britain was incomplete. Old elites, educated in private schools, studying at Oxbridge, have never been far from power. Even with the New Labour government from 1997, traditional upper class control of the country was never truly in danger. But there were major social advances in rights for women, LGBTQ+ people and more, with all the intersections possible. Legal protections have built up piecemeal, but present. There was a sense of a direction from the left and the right. It might not have been the same direction, but both could be said to know where they wanted to take the country.
I don’t think that can really be said for foreign affairs. There was no real desire to stop being an empire. The demand came from the people subjected to rule by a far away island. There was initial support for the European project, but no concept of Britain’s place within it. Membership, eventually in the 1970’s was pragmatic not part of a vision of a European Britain. The Korean War, Cold War and remnants of the imperial country, such as having one of the world’s few blue water navies, scattered colonial hangovers like the Falklands and Gibraltar, and nominal leadership of the Commonwealth further muddied the waters for any cohesive idea of Britain’s place internationally.
So this Elizabethan chapter of Britain has been 70 years of incomplete transformation. Politics is destabilised by repeated failures to address the needs of the whole population by both Conservative and Labour governments (albeit one more than the other). Economic development has been hoarded in the South East of England, while industrial decline and lack of investment in infrastructure has ruined lives in the North of England. English-centric politics has driven a wedge in the union with a very real possibility of Scottish independence in the coming years. Externally, Britain finally lurched towards a sense of its place in the world: as a gargantuan ‘European Singapore’, studded with freeports, low taxes and slashed-back regulation. Shrouded in the same cloud of imperial glamour that was present at the start of the Queen’s reign, this idea of Global Britain is just as much of a myth as the endurance of the British Empire.
Scotland, with its strong movement for independence is striking in how it has broken this pattern. Devolution gave people in Scotland a chance to come up with our own solutions for the similar problems of industrial decline, depopulating countryside, and shift to a services and knowledge economy. The independence debates in the run up to the last referendum and forced us to imagine what our future could be; what Scotland’s place in the world would be. How a country of 5 million people could sustain itself, and what it means to be Scottish. I don’t want to put on rose-tinted glasses, because, as with all nationalism, there is an ugly nativist side to Scottish nationalism, but the overwhelming sense of that debate was of a country that knew what it was, looking to venture out into the international community, find a place within that community, and try to create a better nation and an inclusive nation.
I remember sitting at the gate in Stornaway Airport waiting for a flight down to Edinburgh on the night of one of the big televised debates on independence before the referendum. Our flight was delayed because of bad weather, so we had time to catch the start of the debate. When the plane eventually came, it felt like the crew were pulling us all away from the debate on the little airport TV. A planeload of people glued to a constitutional debate. People engaged with the creation of a vision for Scotland in a way I haven’t seen with the UK as a whole. There is an idea for what Scotland could be. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar thing could be said for Wales, though the debate is in a different context there. But it definitely could not be said for Britain.
The next chapter, with King Charles III is starting in the aftermath of the massive upheaval of Covid-19, with Britain facing economic and energy crises, the omnipresent climate emergency, and internal tensions that could go far beyond ripping up the 1707 Treaty of the Union. Will this new chapter finally bring the social transformation that the last couldn’t complete and the vision that has always been missing?