With the presence of leaders and heads of state from all over the world, with Westminster Abbey packed with some two thousand guests, with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II is the last service that the monarch provided to that illusion that still survives today in British collective psychology: the validity of imperial glory when the UK was the center of the world and its power spread across the planet.
This Monday the 19th for a few hours the country became the center of world attention in an event followed by television and in the different technological formats of the 21st century by hundreds of millions of people, global audience that contributes to extending the life of an anachronistic institution. In the television broadcast, the BBC presenter explained with unconscious plot narcissism the presence of some 500 dignitaries from all over the planet, the crowd in the streets and on the screens. According to the presenter, this presence was due to the global imprint of the Monarch that had provided “continuity for 70 years to a world that was changing rapidly.”
“Reality likes symmetries”, said Borges and, in this case, the phrase is perfectly corroborated. In 1953 the coronation of Elizabeth II was a global event full of heads of state, leaders, diplomats and the streets packed with people. The state funeral this Monday closed the cycle with similar pomp. President Joe Biden, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, leaders and heads of state of republican and monarchist countries, the 15 nations that still recognize the reign of the British monarchy, representatives of developed and developing countries and celebrities stopped their activities to pay tribute to the Monarch.
Russia, Belarus, Burma, Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan were not invited to the event. The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his wife, on the other hand, were among those present. Also the monarchs or representatives of Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships in the Middle East. The most controversial invitation was that of the Saudi prince Mohammed Bin Salman accused of the brutal murder of the journalist and opposition Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four years ago.
The changes of a reign
The symmetry already contains inevitable historical differences. Added to the technological revolution is the abyss that separates both eras. Post-war UK was only in an early stage of post-colonialism: the loss of many colonial enclaves was missing and watershed events like the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 to show that things had changed forever in the “greatest empire known to mankind, where the sun never sets.”
Television took its first steps in the 1950s: today the audiovisual media have colonized world culture. An equally radical change occurred in moral norms. Abortion and homosexuality were crimes and divorce was stigmatized in the 1950s: the liberalization of customs that followed reached the same monarchy that two decades later ended up accepting the marriage of today’s King Carlos III with the divorced Camilla Parker-Bowles.
The United Kingdom of the 1950s was white with some additions from the colonies that did not affect its cultural physiognomy: today it is a multi-racial society transformed by immigration from the colonies that changed everything from its cuisine to its music and its way of life. dance.
The Queen devoted much of her time to maintaining the Commonwealth of Nations, that last colonial remnant of more than fifty former colonies. At the funeral service at Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, alluded to this role. “The Queen herself declared that her reign would be dedicated to service to the entire world and to the commonwealth of nations. Rarely has a promise been kept so faithfully,” Welby said.
The mystery of the imperial mystique
The polls vary according to the circumstances, but on average they give 70% in favor of the monarchy and 30% for the republic. In the 1950s, support for the monarchy was more overwhelming. Among young people between 18 and 24 years old, there is today a greater detachment from an institution that they accept as part of the daily landscape, but that, for the most part, they do not support. The same happens among the different minorities that swarm in the United Kingdom.
The conflict between republicanism and monarchy has centuries. In the 17th century King Charles I lost (literally) his head to the republicans led by Oliver Cromwell. A few chaotic years later it was Oliver Cromwell who (literally) lost his mind leading to the monarchical restoration and the foundations of the new institutional order: the parliamentary monarchy. Revolutionary in its time, it has not moved much of place in recent centuries.
The legendary constitutionalist Walter Bagehot pointed out in the 19th century that the Executive and Legislative Power was (and is) in the hands of the government and Parliament. The monarchy constituted the “dignity” of the State, sustained by pomp and ceremony, essential elements for a mythical national narrative that would wrap society under a mantle of unity.
A conservative and moderately Republican weekly such as “The Economist” (of which Bagehot was the most distinguished editor) underlines the validity of these symbols. “Bagehot’s vision continues to carry weight. Politicians come and go, negotiate deals, win elections, and divide their countries. The monarchy helps keep politics and the nation separate. The benefit that this brings can be seen by contrasting what is happening here with the situation in the United States, Brazil and Turkey, poisoned by the merger of head of state and head of government that has been seen with Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. ”.
The attachment to tradition, the often routine, methodical, pragmatic and skeptical character of the British makes them reject a change of this status quo that with its pluses and minuses has worked for centuries. “It is true that a monarchy is not needed for this separation. Countries like Ireland work perfectly with a ceremonial president. The advantage that the constitutional monarchy has over presidents is the reason for the surprising success that Queen Elizabeth II had in her 70-year reign: a mixture of continuity and tradition that is still seasoned today with a mythical vestige of the power of royalty. to ensure that society’s conflicts of interest are resolved peacefully and constructively,” says “The Economist” in its editorial about the funeral.
This peaceful resolution of conflicts is not in the hands of the crown, which, as Walter Bagehot said, can try to “influence the opinion of the rulers, but cannot make decisions”. One person in the very large crowd that paid tribute to the queen shouted as King Carlos III passed by, “while you spend a fortune on this ceremony, we are starving.”
It was an isolated voice, one of the few that has been raised these days against the monarchy. With the burial tonight in a private ceremony, the enormous political and social parenthesis that left the enormous conflicts that the United Kingdom is going through will end in an illusory suspense. The new British Prime Minister, Liz Truss, who took office two days before the death of Elizabeth II, has prepared a battery of measures with announcements every day that will culminate on Friday with an emergency budget.
The drop in purchasing power to its lowest level in decades, the highest inflation since the 1990s, the doubling of gas and electricity rates At the beginning of October, a wave of strikes that will resume with the burial of the queen, are some of the problems that the prime minister will face. Her ultraliberal program in the style of Macri-Bullrich-Espert-Milei anticipates turbulent times.
To these factors must be added the potential disintegration of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations (56 countries, 14 of which have the monarchy as head of state). In Scotland, independence is becoming stronger thanks to the economic crisis and the disastrous result of Brexit. In Wales it is growing. In Northern Ireland fears are intensifying among unionists that the current predominance of Catholics and Republicans at the polls will end with a reunification with the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union.
The commonwealth of nations that encompasses some 2.5 billion people from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and Zambia is looking more and more like a wax museum. The economic benefit is marginal. At best his role is diplomatic. Many former colonies perceive that since Brexit, the UK seems to need more of the Commonwealth to project a global image than the Commonwealth countries need the old imperial power. In December Barbados became the first country in almost 30 years to become a Republic. Jamaica has stated that it wants to do so by the end of 2025. Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has appointed a minister to assist with passage to a republican country.
The 11 days of hiatus due to the death of the Queen are coming to an end and the United Kingdom will have to face this new world with a new and dogmatic Prime Minister and a new King Charles IIItrained for decades for this role, but who can never have the symbolic stature of his mother to unify his subjects under a narrative worn by the passage of time and history.