After Queen Elizabeth’s death, Britain faces questions and uncertainty

Photo for The Washington Post by James Forde
A woman reflects after visiting the gates of Buckingham Palace.

LONDON – In 1953, Eve Pollard’s parents bought a tiny black-and-white TV so the family could watch Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Pollard was 7, and she remembers neighbors piling into her house, all dressed up for the telecast – men in ties, women in smart outfits and Pollard in a frilly, checked dress.

“That’s how innocent we were,” said Pollard, a longtime journalist and author in London. “We had just won a war, a great victory, and the queen was so glamorous. Now, we wonder, ‘Who are we? And where are we going?'”

With the queen’s death on Thursday, Britain’s new Elizabethan age is over, replaced by a moment of uncertainty and questions about the future.

Her passing comes as this island nation of 67 million was already mired in dire and complicated times, with the question of national identity – fraught and unanswered since the end of World War II – blurred and divisive.

The prideful proclamations of the Brexiteers – who heralded a new era of “Global Britain” in the aftermath of its break with the European Union – have degenerated into petty legal disputes and sniping with its closest neighbors. The country is experiencing the highest energy cost spikes in Europe and a revolving door at 10 Downing Street that has Britain suddenly looking more like Italy – working on its fourth prime minister in six years.

Regional tensions that have long dogged London are also increasing. Scotland, already angling for a new independence vote, may find this moment ripe for a fresh start in the absence of a beloved and shared queen. Northern Ireland, whose status has never been totally clear post-Brexit, is jittery, which carries ominous echoes.

“She was the glue that held our nation together for as long as most of us can remember,” veteran Scottish journalist and former BBC presenter Andrew Neil wrote in the Daily Mail. “Through war and peace, social revolution and consolidation, separatist challenges and national unity, here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians (including her 15 prime ministers), from Empire to Commonwealth.”

“. . . With her gone,” he wrote, “the risk of becoming unstuck and falling apart on so many fronts is all the greater.”

The country moves forward now with a new monarch, King Charles III, who is less popular than his mother and even than his son and heir, Prince William. The new prime minister, Liz Truss, was selected by Conservative Party members and has yet to be tested in a public vote. A recent poll showed only 12 percent of Britons expect her to be a good or great leader, with 52 percent predicting her tenure will be “poor or terrible.”

“There will be a substantial moment of national introspection, a long moment of pause for what the queen’s death means for Britain’s role in the world,” said Tony Travers, a British politics expert at the London School of Economics.

“Britain has a separate head of state and government, and both have changed in the span of two days,” he said. “The passing of a monarch and changing of a prime minister have happened before, of course, but it will be a profound moment for collective self-reflection in the U.K.”

Flowers and other offerings are piling up in front of Buckingham Palace, where crowds have gathered to pay their respects. In interviews, many there said they were impressed by King Charles.

They know he will be different from his mother, but they are also used to him – he’s the longest-ever king-in-waiting. In recent years, and in recent months especially, Charles has been taking on more of his mother’s duties. He stood in for her at major events like the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament.

Still, the passing of the queen was jarring. “I woke up this morning and felt really strange. It’s like there’s been a seismic shift in reality,” said Louise Kirby, 52, who works for an aquarium in east Yorkshire. “I got a message from my mother saying, ‘What’s in store for us?'”

She said her mother is a supporter of the royal family and likes Charles but is worried. “Can we cope with another change? We’ve been faced with so many changes worldwide, are we ready for another?”

“Even if the change is good – not that the queen’s death is good – we can all react to change in a strange way,” Kirby said. “There’s a certain level of unease.”

The national outpouring for the 96-year-old queen’s death seems more muted than the collective mourning over the sudden death of Princess Diana 25 years ago when she was just 36.

There’s also a generational disconnect. Many younger Britons care little about the monarchy and see it as a relic of an often-troubled past. Some have chafed at the massive media focus on the queen’s death and say Brexit is a far more important issue.

Still, for millions of people, Queen Elizabeth was a touchstone, a symbol of British pride and greatness, a living bridge to a more glorious time.

When she became monarch in 1952, Britain was the most industrialized nation in Europe, accounting for nearly 10 percent of global trade. Today, its economy is vastly eclipsed by once-defeated Germany, and only marginally larger than that of France.

The quality of its leaders has diminished, from the lion that was Winston Churchill to the scandal-plagued likes of the recently ousted Boris Johnson, known perhaps more for his flubs and flippancy than his stewardship of Britain.

“In 1953, the U.K., its government and its civil servants were highly respected across the world,” said David Edgerton, professor of modern British history at King’s College. “And today, people look on in amazement at our prime ministers and are astonished by their seeming lack of grasp of reality.”

Postwar Britain was hardly a golden age, as the country struggled to modernize its economy and society, resulting in labor strife and often grim economic times. Those problems, along with the Cold War and later violence in Northern Ireland, lasted well into the term of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Still, at the end of World War II, Elizabeth, then a young princess, had stood alongside a smiling Churchill on V-Day, waving to jubilant crowds celebrating victory over Nazi Germany and hopeful about Britain’s future.

Now war has returned to Europe because another leader, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, is determined to destroy neighboring lands to conquer them. The fighting in Ukraine has interrupted global energy supplies and is likely to force Britain to borrow millions to help heat British homes in a difficult winter ahead.

“This country has always thought we could at least heat our homes,” Pollard said. “Suddenly we woke to find everyone in a real bind. Suddenly we don’t seem to be quite the strong country we felt we were.”

In practical terms, the arrival of a new prime minister is more significant to daily British life than the ascendancy of the new king. The monarch can express empathy with people struggling to heat their homes, but the prime minister can provide money and programs.

But Queen Elizabeth held a unique place in British life. Even people who despise the monarchy liked her. She projected British pride. She was what Britain wanted to see when it looked in the mirror. Her loss is unsettling.

“There is a sense of unease, but people can’t quite put their finger on what the source of that is, except for a sense of change and not knowing quite what the future will feel like,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House, the British think tank. “We are moving into a point where Britain is less sure of its role in the world.”

Robin Niblett, Maddox’s predecessor at Chatham House, said Britain was already in decline by the time the queen ascended the throne. Its once-great empire was waning. And Elizabeth’s reign was marked by further deterioration, including the humiliating Suez crisis in 1956, in which British, French and Israeli troops were forced to withdraw from a military operation to retake control of the Suez Canal from Egypt. The episode was widely seen as affirming Britain’s reduction to a second-tier power.

Niblett said the nation has already moved on from being defined “entirely by her.” New cultural touchstones beyond the monarchy, from Harry Potter to “Downton Abbey,” are now the more familiar global symbols of Britain.

While Britain now has a richer and more diverse population than ever, it is also deeply divided along economic and cultural lines in ways that mirror the polarization in the United States.

King Charles III also inherits from his mother the problem of how to deal with growing unease among Commonwealth nations over colonial history and their allegiance to the crown.

Last November, Barbados severed its colonial-era ties to the British throne, declaring itself a republic amid fireworks and cheers. Earlier this year, Caribbean trips by Prince Edward, Elizabeth’s youngest son, and his wife, Sophie, and Prince William and his wife, Catherine, were marred by protests and calls for reparations from countries colonized by Britain that still hold its monarch as head of state.

Six island nations in the region – Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis – have already signaled plans to eventually drop the British monarch as head of state and name their own.

“It is inevitable that the countries where Charles III is now king will become republics,” said Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the United States. “Not because of the death of Elizabeth II, who had been their sovereign for 70 years, but because it has become incongruous that countries that are independent and sovereign should continue to hold to the British crown.”

Maddox said British government officials were reluctant to make changes to long-held traditions that were seen as important to the queen, including the monarch’s role as the head of the Church of England and the hereditary nature of memberships in the House of Lords.

“Conversations that were deliberately avoided out of respect for Queen Elizabeth might be more open and more accessible now,” she said.

Changes on the horizon have been brought into focus by the queen’s death. Whether welcome or not, they have created a disquiet in the country she led.

“It’s given people the feeling that we’re not sure about ourselves,” Pollard said. “The British are worried about where we fit in.”