By Mohamed Harees –
Annus Horribilis indeed for the British nation, as it starts to mourn the sad passing away of Queen Elizabeth II, at Balmoral Castle, her estate in the Scottish Highlands. Her Majesty was 96, at the time of her death and was a much revered monarch not just in the UK, but the world over, Her Majesty’s extraordinary long reign lent her an air of permanence that would undoubtedly makes her demise, even at her advanced age, somehow shocking in the minds of her people. Her larger than life figure marked a living link to the glories of World War II Britain, as she presided over its fitful adjustment to a post-colonial, post-imperial era; recently also seeing through Britain’s bitter divorce from the European Union .
Her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, passed away earlier last year. “The queen is dead. Long live the King,” is a phrase that was last uttered in 1901 upon the passing of Queen Victoria, when her son Edward ascended to the British throne. The Buckingham Palace also on September 8, 2022 similarly announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the succession of the Prince of Wales, now the King Charles III.
Seven decades, fifteen PMs and One Queen! A remarkable achievement indeed! A legacy hard to beat and certainly remembered for generations to come! In her 1953 Coronation speech, Queen Elizabeth said “The ceremonies you have seen today are ancient, and some of their origins are veiled in the mists of the past. But their spirit and their meaning shine through the ages never, perhaps, more brightly than now. Thus, the Queen of all seasons defined not just a monarchy, but an era itself, in a turbulent WWII world. She was the rock on which modern Britain was built. The queen’s “legacy will loom large in the pages of British history, and in the story of our world”, as President Biden said in his message. In 2015, she overtook Victoria to become the nation’s longest-serving monarch, but her final years were to prove among the most challenging, as she sought to bind together a nation divided by Brexit and stricken by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Queen successfully steered through the monarchy, though turbulent times and her passing away, and saw it through. She showed that her character was made of steel when she largely with her dignity and sense of duty, played an anchoring role and rose above the tabloid headlines, to weather the upheavals the Royalty went through – whether in the case of her sister Margaret, son Charles’ issues with Diana or in the recent times during her son Andrew’s shameful encounters with a disgraced financier. Of course, the internal strife continues as the Royal family is facing the issues relating to the departure of Harry and Meghan, to the US.
Different people may have opposing views and perceptions about royalty and whether the institution is needed or should be abolished. The writer too shares the latter perspective as the Royals are continuing to be a burden on the public purse. However, to the credit of Her Majesty, her dignity, her compassion, her dedication and tireless work ethic as well as her holistic outlook by involving all sections of the people, as well as her selflessness and unwavering commitment to the people that she served were beyond dispute. In her inspiring speech during the Corona pandemic, she saw the opportunity for people of all faiths, and of none, to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation. All nationalities in the UK considered her as their Queen, due to her inclusive outlook and her ability to reach out to all irrespective of racial or religious differences.
Her Majesty’s position may seem ceremonial. But it has a public acceptance by its own right as well. Queen herself stressed this in her speech on Nov. 20, 1997, at Banqueting House in London: “For I know that, despite the huge constitutional difference between a hereditary monarchy and an elected government, in reality the gulf is not so wide … And each, in its different way, exists only with the support and consent of the people. “That consent, or the lack of it, is expressed for you, prime minister, through the ballot box. It is a tough, even brutal, system but at least the message is a clear one for all to read. For us, a royal family, however, the message is often harder to read, obscured as it can be by deference, rhetoric or the conflicting currents of public opinion.”But read it we must.”. In her role as Queen, she has a variety of jobs, ranging from hosting diplomacy events to influencing trends, but one of her most important roles is that of philanthropist. She has committed her life to serving others, and her example set a precedent for the entire royal family. Queen Elizabeth II’s impact on poverty around the world has thus created a legacy that will last for centuries.
She became a motherly figure to many countries, which were earlier British colonies too, as Head of the Commonwealth. With roots in the British empire, the Commonwealth in its modern-day form came about in 1949 with the London Declaration establishing a precedent of member states being “free and equal”. Membership was not contingent on recognising the British monarch as the head of state. The organisation offers a way for smaller states to band together and potentially have more influence regarding issues like climate change. It gives them a global platform to talk about issues of concern to them, find fellow members that share similar experiences, and potentially get wealthier members like Australia to help out in a spirit of friendship.
She has taken a great interest in leadership in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, has tried to patch up differences between leaders and keep people feeling as though it is relevant for their nation to stay in the Commonwealth”. Her extraordinary reign has seen her travel more widely than any other monarch – and one third of her total overseas visits have been to Commonwealth countries. Thus, her enviable legacy spanning over 7 decades encompassed a wider reach. Her first televised Christmas broadcast in 1957, gave an inkling of what she stood up for. “It’s inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you, a successor to the kings and queens of history. “I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice. But I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.”
As Head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty has helped build a unique family of nations spanning every continent, including Sri Lanka. In a previous Commonwealth Day message, Her Majesty said:“It is always inspiring to be reminded of the diversity of the people and countries that make up our worldwide family. We are made aware of the many associations and influences that combine through Commonwealth connection, helping us to imagine and deliver a common future.”Britain has 14 overseas territories, including Bermuda, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and British Antarctic Territory, over which she also ruled. During her time on the throne, eight referendums were held on becoming a republic, three of which passed: Ghana (1960), South Africa (1960) and The Gambia (1970). Barbados declared itself a republic without holding a referendum.Those that did not pass were a first referendum in The Gambia (1965), two in Tuvalu (1986 and 2008), Australia (1999) and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (2009).
Queen Elizabeth was the Head of State of Sri Lanka, until 1972 when the country became a republic. In 1954, just five months after her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II engaged in a royal visit to Sri Lanka. This was the first visit to Sri Lanka by a reigning monarch. They visited again in 1981 to witness the construction of the Victoria Dam, Sri Lanka’s largest hydroelectric project, constructed by a UK firm. Her husband left an everlasting legacy through the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, which have had a huge impact on thousands of people, including many young Sri Lankans. In the documentary “The Queen’s Green Planet” with Sir David Attenborough, Her Majesty shared her dream to create a global network of protected forests by encouraging people from across the Commonwealth to plant trees. The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy was launched, and the restoration of ten hectares of forest land in Trincomalee has been dedicated in her name. The project aims to enrich the eco-system by restoring degraded forest lands to ensure a productive environment for wildlife, and to protect watersheds and biodiversity.
Her reign perhaps proves right the dictum of royal biographer Dermot Morrah that the task of a constitutional monarch is not to do, but simply to be. However her heirs may fare, to have remained for so long the titular and spiritual leader of her people, never mind one so popularly admired, is the noblest of achievements. Many in Britain and abroad will begin to question the future of the Commonwealth of Nations. The queen’s death will highlight two things: first, her power as a symbol for the British people; second, that the wheels of the state will continue turning without her. While Elizabeth remained popular among Brits, support for the monarchy itself as an institution has been slipping. It was Elizabeth personally who was the mainstay of the Commonwealth. As a top civil servant once put it: “She believed passionately and deeply in that institution — she saw it as part of her mission. I’d not put money on the Commonwealth staying together after her.”
Queen Elizabeth’s death will also spark a multitude of feelings, often conflicting, not just in Britain but around the world. The monarch has been the only head of state that millions of her subjects in the British Isles and the Commonwealth have ever known. The Commonwealth has also been criticised as being ineffective, with a poor track record of bringing about major policy changes, and many have suggested that it has perhaps run its course historically. For the historian however, the Commonwealth has a future and potential that is not necessarily tied to the Queen. It is a future model of the Commonwealth that may be gathering pace. In recent days, speculation has arisen that Australia may be the next Commonwealth nation to become a republic after the new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, appointed an Assistant Minister for the Republic. More members of the Commonwealth may follow suit and may become republics, but that is more linked to their constitutional relationship to Britain rather than membership in the organisation. “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” said Barbados Governor-General Sandra Mason in announcing her country’s independence from the UK.
Besides, Brexit has strained some of the ties within the United Kingdom. The breakup of the Union may not be so imminent, or even very likely during Charles’s tenure, but he will have to grapple with it. One thing every Brit had in common was the queen; now the question is whether King Charles III can play a similar unifying role. Those challenges pile on top of the greatest instability Europe has seen in decades.
A reassuring presence at home, she was also an emblem of Britain abroad — a form of soft power, consistently respected whatever the vagaries of the country’s political leaders on the world stage. Overall Post Elizabeth! however the monarchy is likely to become more a point of nostalgic pride than actual necessity. The extent of the monarch’s political influence occasionally sparked speculation — but not much criticism while Elizabeth was alive. The views of Charles, who has expressed strong opinions on everything from architecture to the environment, might prove more contentious. As UK’s footprint around the world has shrunk, so too has its willingness to integrate itself with the continent and beyond. It is entirely probable that Charles and his likely successor, Prince William, will oversee the unravelling of the monarchy itself.
All in all, Elizabeth II will be viewed in history as the last of the British monarchs to have any real claim of ruling the British people. UK, sans the Queen will never be the same again. As the nation mourns her irreparable loss, those beyond too can take inspiration from her long reign and exemplary life and give thanks for the remarkable contribution Her Majesty has made, not just to UK, but to the Commonwealth in particular and the world in general. RIP Queen Elizabeth!