Thursday afternoon, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96. She held the British throne for 70 years, making her the UK’s longest-serving monarch.
“Busy” is perhaps the key word here. While the Queen’s formal powers were greater than many might think in a constitutional monarchy – under the letter of English law the monarch can choose to appoint or dismiss the Prime Minister, for example – in practice, they have never been exercised to their full extent. , and they never would have been.
The Queen’s position, if not the continued existence of the British monarchy, depended on staying out of the real political sphere. The then British government ruled in his name from Westminster, but it is considered unconstitutional for the monarch to even vote.
As a result, Elizabeth has spent seven decades in one of the world’s most high-profile posts… without taking direct political action. She’s met everyone worth meeting, traveled over a million miles and visited over 115 countries, hosted 15 British prime ministers in power – all while doing nothing but being herself royal often silent. It made her, in a sense, the greatest spectator in history.
And the story she witnessed was more than the cumulative weight of 70 years. During those decades, the world changed like never before – sometimes for the worse, often for the better – and Queen Elizabeth II watched it all from a singular perch.
The end of the empire
When her father, King George VI, died on February 6, 1952, the future queen was at a remote game viewing camp in Kenya – so remote, in fact, that she never learned of his death and its ascent four hours later. the fact.
Today, of course, news of the Queen’s death spread instantly across the internet – despite efforts to control the news, it was quickly leaked on Twitter. And Kenya is no longer a British colonial territory, as it was in 1952, but a country in its own right which will soon celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence.
During his reign, Britain went from more than 70 overseas territories – such as Hong Kong and Singapore in East Asia, Yemen in the Middle East and Guyana in South America – to which is mostly a handful of sparsely populated islands. Even the UK itself may be doomed to dissolution, with an entire Ireland a real possibility and Scotland once again threatening an independence vote.
As at its coronation in 1953, Britain is still a nuclear power and still holds one of five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. But six years after the Brexit vote, Britain’s international influence is at an all-time low; or at least it would be, if it didn’t look likely to fall even further as the economically-struggling nation prepares for what promises to be a cost-of-living crisis this winter.
To be clear, the evaporation of empire that Elizabeth witnessed is nothing to lament. If self-determination – the right of peoples to decide their own destiny in the international order – is sacrosanct, then the fact that more than 700 million people at the time of Elizabeth’s coronation were effectively living under the rule of a foreign government was a historic wrong that needed to be righted.
70 years is a long time
Anyone who sits on a throne for 70 years will witness a changing world. But Elizabeth’s reign was so unique because her seven decades as queen were so unique.
Compare Elizabeth to another historic monarch who reigned almost as long: King Louis XIV of France, the legendary “Sun King.” (Technically, Louis was king longer than Elizabeth was queen, but he spent the first eight years of his reign under a regency. I’ll let scholars of royalty sort that out.) Between the rise of Louis to the throne in 1643 and his death in 1715, GDP per capita barely moves in France. Progress as we know it was essentially stagnant, as it was all over the world.
During Elizabeth’s time, however, UK GDP per capita more than tripled, part of a wave of economic growth that began in the 1800s with the Industrial Revolution and really took off in globally in the post-war period. Life expectancy in the UK was just under 70 in 1953 – today it is north of 80.
And the changes were even greater during those decades in many of the developing countries that once made up the British Empire. Shortly before the Queen’s death, India – which had spent almost a century under direct British rule – overtook the UK as the world’s fifth largest economy.
Much of this progress was the result of technological changes that Elizabeth witnessed firsthand. She was the first British monarch to have her coronation televised live, sending her first email in 1976 and her first tweet in 2014. Her first Christmas message to her subjects was broadcast on the radio – her last could be posted on YouTube.
Britain in 1953 was a predominantly white country, a country where women had only had full equal voting rights for 25 years. The UK is now a multi-ethnic democracy, where a recent candidate for Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is a Hindu whose parents were immigrants from East Africa of Indian origin, and where the eventual winner, Liz Truss, is the country’s third female prime minister.
Homosexuality was not legalized in Britain until 1967, more than a decade into his rule. In 2018, Lord Ivar Mountbatten, a cousin of Elizabeth, became the first member of the British royal family to marry their same-sex partner.
If part of the Queen’s appeal was her longevity, that longevity mattered all the more as it took place over a time of unprecedented change. The 18th century France that existed at the end of the reign of Louis XIV would have seemed little different to the young king more than 70 years before, in terms of technology, economy and social mores.
The UK of 2022 – and indeed the world as a whole – would be unrecognizable for the 25-year-old woman who was consecrated at Westminster Abbey in 1953. And the pace of change to come, for King Charles III and its successors, seems to be only accelerating. One of those changes, at least in the UK, is sure to be the monarchy itself. As Dylan Matthews wrote in 2015, constitutional monarchies can have real value, ensuring that a figure is politics without being in it. But that role may have died with the Queen. The trappings of monarchy may be transferable to Charles, a figure all too familiar to British audiences, but probably not the spirit embodied by Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth II did not cause any of these changes to her reign, but she witnessed them from a unique vantage point. And his passing reminds us how long 70 years really are, especially these 70 years.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!