LONDON—If there is one word that has come to encapsulate the reign of Queen Elizabeth II following her death last week, it is continuity. But that’s a misleading epitaph, obscuring the late monarch’s true genius—and the legacy she leaves to her son.
It was not exactly continuity—or its oft-repeated cousins, stability and constancy—that explained the brisk business in the flower store at the back of St. Pancras train station in central London at 9 am on the Sunday after the queen’s passing, as people purchased flowers to leave at Buckingham Palace.
“Some of them buy white flowers for mourning,” the florist told me. “But many of them want lots of colors. The queen liked bright colors.” While many customers opted for prepackaged bouquets, some assembled them individually—choosing each flower carefully with the former monarch in mind.
The queen’s death has come as a shock to the United Kingdom. That might be surprising; she was ninety-six and not in good health. And yet somehow she had seemed permanent, apparently as solid and reliable as the Thames or the white cliffs of Dover or disorder on public holidays, as endless as a game of cricket.
As the country adjusts, it’s worth investigating what was really behind the sense of stability and constancy that Elizabeth inspired—and studying the lessons such an investigation yields about history, political institutions, what political stability is, and how to keep it. In many respects, this is a country where change has been the rule. And what’s most notable about the monarchy is, in fact, its ability to adapt to that change.
The British crown is anything but an emblem of solidity. And its holders have been constantly reminded of contingency and impermanence. Queen Elizabeth’s life reflects the ways in which her country was shaped by dramatic shifts and choices with unintended consequences—and how she and the institution she embodied chose to move with the times rather than fade into irrelevance.
A reign defined by turbulence
Queen Elizabeth’s very ascent to the throne in 1952 was an accident of fate. Her uncle Edward abdicated the throne to be with the American woman he wanted to marry. Her father, George VI, became king unexpectedly, and he had two daughters. Had a son arrived before or after her, she would have spent her days as Princess Elizabeth, amid a mass of horses, dogs, and children. But the rules of succession prevailed, and she became queen. Chance and passion (not her own) brought her to the throne.
That her family was still there at all was by no means a certainty. Europe had many ruling royal or princely families before World War I. After it, revolution swept the continent. Rulers were toppled and, in some cases, executed, as were the Romanovs in Russia. Nations and empires were redrawn, often arbitrarily. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires were dissolved. New ruling families assumed power in some states, but the trend toward republics—if not democracies—was unmistakable. Many of Elizabeth’s cousins ended World War I in exile or worse. The British royal family adopted a more domestic and less opulent approach (perhaps fewer palaces).
If she had needed a further reminder of the fragility of national survival, World War II delivered that in the most somber terms. As German landing craft mustered in French ports and bombers dropped their lethal cargo across the United Kingdom, a squadron of armored cars from the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry waited at Windsor Castle. In the event of an invasion, they were to evacuate the two royal princesses, Elizabeth and her sister Margaret, to Liverpool, where a boat would have taken them to Canada. These plans must have seemed grim indeed to a young woman contemplating her future as ruler. The image of the royal family floating on the open sea amid prowling German U-boats couldn’t have been reassuring.
Elizabeth joined the army in 1944 as a driver and mechanic; she wasn’t on the front lines, but the front lines came to her in London. She came away from the experience with some greater sense than her predecessors of what war really meant.
The British monarchy is a thousand-year-old institution. Yet in that time it has changed ruling families on several occasions, often dramatically and with enough conflict to inspire Shakespeare. The innocuously named Windsors have been in power since 1901—except that before 1917 they were called the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a name that seemed less innocuous when World War I broke out. The Saxe-Coburg and Gotha name came from Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. Before that, the Hanoverians were on the throne—also German by origin, but at a time when being of German descent seemed acceptable (it was the French who were to be avoided). And so it continues as one scrolls back through history: Change is what is remarkable, not continuity. The monarchy is not unlike a thousand-year-old broom with a brush that has been replaced sixty times and the handle a dozen more.
In fact, for more than a decade there was no monarch at all, because the English had executed the incumbent during a bloody civil war, preferring rule by Parliament. After that, the sovereign returned—only for his heir to be toppled again in what amounted to a coup in 1688, when the aristocracy decided it preferred to be ruled by a Dutch Protestant rather than a British Catholic. As time went on, the powers of the monarch were steadily reduced—first to require parliamentary consent to royal power and then to vest sovereignty in Parliament.
These episodes serve as a reminder that when republicanism stirs in the United Kingdom—which it often does, though with a muted voice in recent days—it doesn’t just come from metropolitan liberals of the twenty-first century. Ever since the barons forced King John to make concessions in the Magna Carta, the powers of the sovereign have often been in dispute. There was strong sentiment to remove the monarchy in the nineteenth century and such sentiment resurfaced regularly under Elizabeth’s reign, though it has never coalesced into an effective force.
Elizabeth’s seventy years on the throne, moreover, were hardly smooth and steady. The continual decline of British power that followed World War II, the crumbling of the British economy, and the precipitous fall in the value of the pound made the postwar decades increasingly painful and unstable. The country even had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund in 1976. In 1977, when the punk group the Sex Pistols serenaded Elizabeth with their anthemic “God Save the Queen” to mark her twenty-fifth anniversary on the throne, the country was at a low ebb. “There is no future in England’s dreaming,” they spat. “No future. No future.” It seemed there was only a past to celebrate.
The country abruptly reversed course and policy in 1979 with the arrival of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who controversially swept away much of the traditional machinery of government and state intervention. Though in public the queen worked cordially with all her fifteen prime ministers, Thatcher, the first woman to hold the office, didn’t seem to have been a favorite. Thatcher was less invested in preserving the country’s social fabric and more focused on reinventing the economy, with some success. She had little concern for the older niceties of government—and it showed. The queen (mostly) kept calm and carried on.
Moments of personal pain and difficulty also punctuated Elizabeth’s reign. The most public was the death of her former daughter in law, Princess Diana, mother of the heir to the throne. The ensuing crisis was as much about the queen’s own sensitivity to the national mood—she faced intense criticism for remaining at Balmoral Castle in Scotland for days after Diana’s death, as London mourned in shock—as it was about the passions of the royal family.
The conflict in Northern Ireland revealed the lack of unity in the United Kingdom. Terrorist attacks killed civilians in Northern Ireland and England, but the conflict was also stained by the murder of unarmed civilians by British security forces and even the murder of Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip. Nationalism has resurfaced often in the queen’s beloved Scotland, which has moved toward independence at times over the past decade. The union itself has frequently looked unstable and uncertain.
The greatest discontinuity of all, of course, was the fall of the empire, the hallmark of Elizabeth’s reign. When she spoke in public in 1947 for the first time, her subject was her future role and duty—couched in terms of the empire. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said. Yet that same year India and Pakistan (population in 1947: around four hundred million) achieved their independence from the United Kingdom (population then: around fifty million). From that point onward, the British flag was almost constantly coming down somewhere in the world. What remains is a small cluster of island states, the largest of which is the Cayman Islands (population today: 78,554).
Replacing the empire was the Commonwealth, initially called the British Commonwealth, consisting of mostly self-governing territories that came together for cultural and political reasons. Queen Elizabeth was passionate about the Commonwealth—and thanks to her persistence, her son King Charles III will now be the head of it. It remains to be seen whether his heir will retain that role.
The Commonwealth has transformed Britain’s fading global role into something more equal and more distributed in terms of power. The queen adapted to this new construct as needed. She expressed pleasure at the new states born of former British territories, sent family members to help haul down the flag when required, and welcomed new states into the Commonwealth as members of a larger “family of nations.” She remained head of state in fourteen countries aside from the United Kingdom, including Canada and Australia. The Commonwealth remained a critical factor to preserve the image of British influence, but also the reality of close personal connections. But it was not, and could not be, the empire.
What was the continuity here? The constant presence? The queen was present throughout. But at the outset, she could still meaningfully regard the nations she led as a great power in the world. The reality at the time of her death was dramatically different: The United Kingdom still boasts one of the world’s largest economies and militaries, but each year it slides in clout in comparison with the United States, China, India, and the other fast-growing states of the world. This is a story in which change has been more evident than stability, even if the face on the bank notes has remained the same.
The genius of Queen Elizabeth II was not to be constant—stuck in time, frozen in a 1950s smile and a stilted wave—but to keep pace. She dealt with the loss of empire, the transition to the Commonwealth, the intrusions of the media, the increase in demands for transparency. She worked to repair relations with Ireland, once part of her country, in a visit that genuinely showed contrition for the British past. She spoke about the legacies of slavery, racism, and colonialism—though she never apologized for the country’s role in them (her beloved father, after all, had been the-emperor). She kept the magic and the ceremony of the monarchy. But she changed enough to make sure that seventy years after she took the throne, the institution would still be there—even after almost everything else had changed. She coped with change because, frankly, there was no alternative. Monarch she may have been, but she could not reverse history. She could walk alongside it, keeping a distance.
The big question for the institution and the country is to what degree that approach can continue.
A king for the moment
In St. Pancras station, a small boy is tentatively playing “God Save the King” on one of the pianos that has been set out for travelers to entertain themselves with, picking out the melody with one finger. It echoes plaintively through the station.
The exterior of the station is an astonishing structure, full of spires, arches, pillars, and intricate detail that make it look more like a royal palace from the 1300s. It was built in imitation of the Gothic style of the Middle Ages. But this particular structure was constructed by the architect George Gilbert Scott in 1876 as a hotel, part of a revival of an antique style that struck the country precisely as the industrial revolution took hold and also influenced the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge—indeed much of London and the United Kingdom. Gothic was the response to rapid industrial change—a romantic backward glance as the country hurtled into the future.
The United Kingdom was the first country to experience the agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution that followed. A hundred years later, it was also one of the first economies to come to the end of the industrial revolution and watch its factories and mills close, with cheaper imports undermining domestic production and jobs. With the end of empire also came new immigration flows, changing the face of British cities. For centuries the pace of social change in Britain has been explosive, sometimes triggering unrest, protest, poverty, deprivation, and social rupture.
“For things to remain the same, everything must change.” That’s the message from The Leopard, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa about the crumbling of the old aristocratic order in nineteenth-century Italy. The idea is that at a time of revolution, compromises with the future are necessary to keep power. And yet in the case of Britain, it is almost the reverse: For things to change—to accommodate enormous shifts in society—it has been necessary to keep some appearances of permanence. The spires on St. Pancras or the Houses of Parliament and the age-old ceremonies for naming a new monarch have much in common. They are aimed at maintaining convenient appearances about who is in charge and what they are in charge of. The words and the ceremonies and the spires remain; the meaning and the substance are altered beyond recognition.
The internal structure and the working section of St. Pancras where the trains come is all contemporary, surprisingly efficient and modern for what appears from the outside to be a medieval palace. Nearby, what was once the crumbling industrial remains of the Kings Cross area is now office space, parkland, shops, and restaurants. There is the headquarters of the (anti-monarchist) Guardian newspaper, now housed in the ironically named Kings Place. To the east, the Docklands, where ships once unloaded wares from across the empire, is now home to massive brutalist towers that house global financial-services companies. To the west, the elegant mansions of Mayfair house hedge funds. London has reworked itself, often reclaiming, reusing, and reinterpreting history as it does so.
The future, it is said, is already here but unevenly distributed. Shards of what is to come appear in our lives with unpredictable timing and in unexpected places. And so it is with the past in England. It hangs around like patches of fog on a cold morning, surprisingly persistent. And it serves a social purpose.
Perhaps the surest sign of the desire for formal continuity is the way in which succession happens: instantly. The queen is dead; long live the king. A period of national mourning will be followed by a process to confirm that this is indeed the king, and then a coronation in a few months. But the transition is rapid and semi-mystical. The monarch is like a pilot light on a stove that doesn’t go out, an eternal flame of nationhood.
King Charles III will bring a different set of reference points, language, and ideas to the throne. He is devoted to the environmental cause. While he may hope that his son will succeed him as leader of the Commonwealth, perhaps he has already realized that this is unlikely and prepared a graceful way to step away from that role. He will have other such decisions to make—about the size of the monarchy in hard times, how outspoken to be on climate change, his relationships with the remaining monarchies of the Gulf. He will have to decide how to think about and talk to the United States, where there is respect for history and protocol but also impatience and distrust of monarchy, and where his son Harry and daughter-in-law Meghan Markle are living and are very popular.
Charles must also decide how to work with Prime Minister Liz Truss when both are new to their jobs and the prospects for the economy are looking grim. When Truss and the king meet after Monday’s royal funeral, the discussion will be about national sacrifice, economizing, and finding new ways to grow as a country. The king will need to show that he, too, is bearing some of the burden of sacrifice. His own fortune is estimated in the billions. But he is on record as wanting a smaller royal family. Beyond just staff cuts, that may mean some reduction in palaces and ceremony. Perhaps this year he will not deliver a Christmas speech as the queen sometimes did in a glittering and brightly decorated room of a palace.
Charles will also need to confront change in relationships with former colonies, with a discussion about the royal role in slavery and colonial cruelties. “While we strive together for peace, prosperity, and democracy I want to acknowledge that the roots of our contemporary association run deep into the most painful period of our history,” he told delegates to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in June this year. “I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact.” He added that the Commonwealth needs to “find new ways to acknowledge our past. Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
As for the queen, “In her life of service we saw that abiding love of tradition, together with that fearless embrace of progress, which make us great as nations,” Charles said in his first speech as king. He will need to strike a balance between these two, just as his mother did.
The British monarchy is not about to become what is sometimes called a “bicycling monarchy,” akin to those ultra-informal royals in the Netherlands or Denmark. Like St. Pancras station, the monarchy has its elaborate spires and turrets. But it must also be a working institution in tune with a modern country. It must preserve the essential elements—some pomp and circumstance, some history, some whiff of the eternal—but also be practical and effective. The trains must run on time. Charles III will be very aware of this imperative and will likely want to signal his acceptance of it very quickly. He has, after all, had several decades to plan for this moment.
Change is coming. But a nation like the United Kingdom relies on a sense of history to understand its future. The death of a queen—and the arrival of a king—is a moment to mark the difference between the two, and step forward.
Andrew Marshall is senior vice president of engagement at the Atlantic Council.