One of the main problems with the heavy handed establishment responses to the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign are the insistent declarations of national greatness that so many feel cause to proclaim. Not only does this nationalist cringing conjure an anachronistic nostalgia for greatness at a time when more than one in five Brits live in poverty. Somehow, amidst all the commentary, there is very little reflection on what the death of Queen Elizabeth II might actually mean for the symbolic decline of that greatness, and which will be nowhere more clearly expressed in the end of two geopolitical arrangements: the Commonwealth, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
First, Elizabeth II’s death heralds the end of the Commonwealth – perhaps not immediately, but certainly before the century’s end, and possibly within a matter of decades. Initially formed in the year of Elizabeth’s birth as the British Commonwealth of Nations, the Commonwealth later dropped ‘British’ from its title and established a criteria of ‘free and equal’ status between its fifty six members in 1949.
Elizabeth took the throne just three years later, and the Commonwealth became a point of immense personal passion and pride. Her first public speech in 1940 had been addressed to ‘the children of the Commonwealth’, and she was in Kenya when she inherited the Crown. One of the few times she made her politics publicly known was when Thatcher refused to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Recognising the threat Thatcher’s position posed to the integrity of the Commonwealth, the Queen’s ‘dismay’ was uncharacteristically leaked to several papers, including The Times.
Historically, the Commonwealth has been the institutional vehicle by which Britain managed the formal decolonisation of its Empire. In the past few days, many on the left have understandably pointed to the Queen as a symbol of British colonialism. But as the head of the Commonwealth, she might also be seen as the monarch who oversaw the careful management of the Empire’s gradual dismantling (this is not to say that colonialism does not continue in other forms).
From this view, the Commonwealth can be seen as a halfway stage between Britain’s formal Empire and the arrival of full political decolonisation. In the Caribbean, the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines have been on the verge of leaving the Commonwealth for some time, and several other territories host significant republican movements. The death of Queen Elizabeth II will only accelerate this historical flow.
Hastening the break up of the United Kingdom
Second, it is likely that Elizabeth’s death will not only hasten the break-up of the Commonwealth, but also the fragmentation of the Union itself. Unlike the US, France, Germany, or pretty much any other modern democracy, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has no written constitution. Instead, when the Kingdoms of England and Scotland joined together in 1707, the constitution was embodied in the person of the monarch.
This is why you now hear politicians celebrating Elizabeth for standing as a constant above the ‘clashes of politics’ – she was the constitution, both figuratively and literally. With her death, the post-war iteration of that constitution – the only one most living Britons have known – has come apart.
If the Queen stood as head of a Union on its last legs, her death is one more step towards its eventual demise
It is becoming increasingly evident that Charles III will be incapable of reinventing anything like the quiet soft power Elizabeth once held. A second independence referendum in Scotland seems just one general election away; a referendum on Irish reunification is only a little further down the line. If the Queen stood as head of a Union on its last legs, her death is one more step towards its eventual demise.
Perhaps this is the same process of decolonisation running its course – England and Scotland already had colonial possessions in 1707, and Great Britain was always an imperial state, so the break-up of the United Kingdom is arguably the decolonial endgame. But even if that is the case, this process is far more likely to fuel reactionary rather than progressive politics if no efforts are made to find stability through different constitutional means.
Anyone with an understanding of the Queen’s political gravity may therefore feel concerned at the passing of her symbolic heft. For ‘Great Britain’, as an historical territory and imagined community, truly is adrift without it.
A democratic non-monarchical settlement
I say that not as a monarchist or nationalist, whose reach for hyperbolic epithets about British greatness betrays the deepening insecurity of our current settlement. Instead, I invoke it as a republican who recognises how desperately Britain needs a new settlement, one that is capable of tackling multiple, interlinked crises in health, energy, climate, education, social care, regional inequality, and political representation.
We need a new constitutional agreement for Britain that foregrounds democracy, devolves authority, empowers regions, redistributes wealth, and holds political and financial elites to account. We might call this something like a Green New Deal, but in Britain it must go much deeper than infrastructure plans. Practically, it could start with the removal of unelected leaders, including in the House of Lords, and move towards a vision of the isles as a collection of federalised states with shared constitutional values that are actually written down.
The specifics will need to be debated, of course. But whatever form they take, it is clear that we need an idea of Britain that has come to terms with the Empire that it was, and which is equally realistic about what it might yet become. Without recognition of this need in constitutional arrangements, we will continue to plunge forward, blind to the many challenges that are quickly becoming far too real to alleviate with the pseudo-warmth of nationalist platitudes.
We currently lack the imaginative and empathic leaders needed to bring such changes about. Until they emerge, Britain will continue to crumble, shedding parts of itself, and concealing its waning political power beneath the peeling sticking plaster of the culture wars. Meanwhile, more and more of British society will struggle and suffer, rocked by climate and energy crises, disinvested from meaningful imagined communities, and now deprived of even the symbolic salve that Queen Elizabeth II once provided.