I’ve always been able to recall Queen Elizabeth’s exact age because, like my Iranian grandmother, she was born in 1926. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to reflect on how much their generation lived through. Two years before my grandmother was born, a First World War veteran named Adolf Hitler was released from prison after serving three years for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch. On the horizon, and unbeknown to anyone, were events of extraordinary magnitude, from Nazism to Stalin’s five-year plans, to the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt as US president. These episodes would eventually redefine capitalism and much else.
When my grandmother was born the United Kingdom – the country of my birth – was the beating heart of an empire whose military might and economic power were without rival. Its reach spanned a quarter of the planet’s surface. Its technological prowess – although no longer unchallenged – was inarguable. As teenagers, both women lived through the Second World War, and – in the aftermath of 60 million deaths and the greatest genocide in history – the demise of Europe’s empires.
The Queen and my grandmother were also born at a moment of immense technological change. A year after my grandmother’s birth, and Elizabeth’s, Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St Louis from New York to Paris, becoming the first person to fly across the Atlantic. Then Henry Segrave became the first person to push a land vehicle beyond 200 miles per hour – all the more incredible given that Ford’s Model T, the world’s first mass-produced automobile, was less than 20 years old. As space was compressed and time only accelerated, both the Queen and my grandmother lived to see the jet engine, nuclear energy, the space race, the internet and the sequencing of the human genome.
There is an adage in technology, often quoted in Silicon Valley, which goes by the name of ‘Amara’s Law’ (named after the late scientist Roy Amara). It claims that humans are prone to “overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. While I agree with the rule, I’d argue it holds beyond just technology, informing a cognitive bias that amplifies short-term ‘reality’ above all else. The claim that “nothing changes”, so central to conservative myth-making, is revealed to be absurd when you step back and observe how much can change in the span of a single life. If my niece, who is now 7, lives to 96, she will be here for the early 2110s. It’s a useful thought experiment to reflect on what kind of world she will inhabit.
It’s easy to see the allure of a single monarch serving as head of state for 70 years amid a sea of change – particularly for Britain, as it endured a transformation more overarching than any other wealthy country. This wasn’t technological (it’s hard to argue Britain has experienced greater technological change over the last 80 years than South Korea or China) but rather political and institutional. Despite the widespread misconception that the United Kingdom is an ancient nation-state, it is not. Indeed one could even argue that, a century ago, it didn’t exist in the way it does today. The words ‘United Kingdom’ appear neither in the titles of King George V or VI (both ruled over ‘Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the seas’ – though the Irish no longer recognised the latter as king after 1927). In this regard, then, the United Kingdom might be considered a rather modern nation, its creation more recent even than the 19th-century states of Germany and Italy. Our secular national myth starts to make a lot more sense when you realise that rather than the foundational heroes of Garibaldi or Bismarck, Britain has Churchill – our Lexington and Storming of the Bastille were Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. For many Churchill is associated with colonial violence and ideas of racial superiority, as he should be, but his veneration elsewhere is partly the result of his being a bridge between two different types of state. He helped birth a distinctive British nation.
In many ways, Queen Elizabeth II can be considered a post-imperial queen. That is not to say Britain retained no empire when she acceded the throne – it did, and the disgraceful repression of the Mau Mau Uprising (and more besides) shows its record as imperial aggressor was far from over. But when Princess Elizabeth addressed the empire on her 21st birthday in 1947 (from South Africa) she referred to the ‘British family of nations’. By the time she had been crowned, in 1952, the “implied unitary empire” – as historian David Edgerton puts it – had gone.
A new nation.
As Edgerton notes the signs of a distinctly new nation were increasingly conspicuous, with a collapsing imperial power giving way to the nation-state we recognise today. While 1938 saw the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, its 1951 equivalent was simply called ‘The Festival of Britain’ (its legacy today being London’s modernist Southbank). Elsewhere Labour demanded change in the 1945 election through calls for a ‘socialist British commonwealth’. Britain is the principal entity through which government is conducted today. But as commonplace as it might seem to us, in the world of Elizabeth’s father and grandfather – the environment she grew up in – it would have seemed strange to speak of Britain and not the empire. As with Churchill, the veneration for Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’ – when it purportedly stood alone against the Axis Powers (it didn’t) – makes more sense once you realise, again, that this is a national origin story. An Empire entered a war and the beginnings of a modern nation-state left it behind. Peter Hitchens makes essentially the same point, albeit from a different perspective, concluding that the British Empire saw its twilight at Dunkirk, and later, the fall of Singapore.
Most remarkable of all, this project of nation-building would be almost entirely coterminous with the reign of a single monarch, Elizabeth II. It’s rare for a head of state to endure for as long as she did, rarer still to have done so atop what was, essentially, a newly contrived political entity. The singular nature of this can not be overemphasized – without the stability of the sovereign, and likely post-war social democracy too, the domestic contours of an empire in freefall might have looked very different.
All of which poses questions for what comes next. I suspect future historians will marvel at the ability of the United Kingdom to endure for as long as it did after the demise of empire. After all, Scotland only entered the joint endeavour of union to embark on imperial excursions after the catastrophe of the Darien Scheme in the 1690s. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is presented with the choice between a United Kingdom which will see two lost decades by the mid-2020s – on both wages and growth – and membership of a united Ireland which is not only in the EU but whose politicians at least feign interest in addressing the challenges of the 21st century. Change is always a risk, and the conservatism of the status quo generally prevails, but it is remaining with Britain which increasingly looks the more perilous option. That, alongside the political acumen of Sinn Fein in both the north and south of Ireland, makes unification a distinct possibility.
Queen Elizabeth II was one of several institutions that kept a nation-state forged in the last century together. Another was the BBC. Alongside that was the National Health Service (devolved in Scotland since 1999) and the British Armed Forces. These, alongside an economic model which provided rising living standards, and relatively cordial relations between organised labour and capital (until Margaret Thatcher) generated sufficient consent for an experiment which lasted longer than it might.
Today these sources of legitimacy are in decline. The BBC, while more trusted than the tabloids, has critics from all sides – and technology will ultimately kill the licence fee. The NHS, while much loved, remains in the crosshairs of the free-market zealots running the country. The Armed Forces, as a function of Britain’s inevitably declining geopolitical footprint, are similarly diminishing.
Now with the second Elizabethan age behind us, and King Charles III on the throne, will a polity which has existed almost entirely under the rule of one monarch survive her successor? One suspects not. And if it does that won’t be the result of pure inertia. That strategy has already been tested to its limit.