Queen Elizabeth II has been a rare constant during 70 years of ever-quickening change, embodying the best of Britain for many people. In two years, she will overtake the French king Louis XIV as the longest-reigning monarch ever. And like the Sun King, her successors will not match that length of time on the throne – or its sense of unchallenged security.
While the UK’s four days of Platinum Jubilee celebrations were widely judged to be a success, with nearly 17 million people taking part in community festivities during the holiday weekend, it was hard to avoid a sense that the end of an epoch was drawing near.
‘We were actually discussing what will happen when the Queen is no longer here, and what that means for the way things are run,’ a 23-year-old woman watching the pageant along London’s Mall told the Guardian. ‘We do feel a bit distant.’ A 71-year-old celebrant was also looking ahead: ‘It’s such a shame what might happen if Charles is made king,’ she said, adding that he ‘was not a likeable person’.
Celebrations were more muted in other Commonwealth states. In Jamaica, where republican sentiment has been building since Barbados ditched the Queen as head of state last year, and April’s royal tour met with a cool reception, the jubilee was ‘not resonating’, according to Rosalea Hamilton, of the Advocates Network, which campaigns for slavery reparations. Tyrone Reid, of Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper, said: ‘The calls are increasing for the Queen to be removed and calling for reparations.’ Peter Espeut, a deacon and Gleaner columnist, said he had not heard of any celebrations and it was not something Jamaicans were ‘going to throw a party over’.
In Australia, amid events such as naming an island in Canberra after the Queen, ‘reporters scrambled to actually find Australians who were celebrating the occasion,’ according to a Sydney Morning Herald columnist, who added: ‘The jubilee is a non-event here.’
Meanwhile, the newly elected Labor prime minister, Anthony Albanese, appointed Matt Thistlethwaite as the country’s first assistant minister for the republic and promised another referendum on removing the Queen as head of state if the party won a second term in 2025. ‘It’s time that we start the serious conversation once again about what comes next for Australia after Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends,’ said Thistlethwaite. Albanese said the Australia-UK relationship was ‘no longer what it was at the dawn’ of the Queen’s reign. ‘No longer parent and young upstart, we stand as equals.’ The governor-general, David Hurley, said ‘when she goes … there’s a new discussion in Australia.’
In South Africa, the mood seemed a similar mix of nostalgia and fondness for the Queen among those of a certain age – and indifference elsewhere. In Johannesburg, Edweena Bell, 69, said: ‘To English-speaking South Africans, it’s a hankering after the past, the colonial era … But generally, she doesn’t mean a lot to most people here.’ In Alexandra township, Clever Dlamini, said: ‘I don’t know what it has to do with us now. It is nice for her but we’ve got other things to worry about.’
‘It’s not an anti-imperialist thing, and there’s no hostility,’ said Michael Mutyaba, a Ugandan writer. ‘It’s just sheer lack of interest.’ But Patrick Gathara, a Kenyan commentator, was inflamed, declaring that the Queen’s reign was ‘indelibly stained by the brutality of the empire she presided over’. He added: ‘She has never publicly admitted, let alone apologised, for the oppression, torture, dehumanisation and dispossession visited upon people in the colony of Kenya before and after she acceded to the throne.’
Even in Britain, despite the near-universal affection for her, there seemed to be a more muted response than previously. During the Silver Jubilee in 1977, an estimated 500 million people watched the Queen’s procession in the gold state coach to St Paul’s Cathedral, according to the Royal Household, while more than a million people came out on one day to see her in Lancashire. That year, there were reported to have been 4,000 street parties in London alone. This year, the Evening Standard counted barely 1,000 events of any kind in the capital; Glasgow had almost none; and there were only 100 or so applications to close roads for street parties in all of Scotland, the Times reported.
Nevertheless, for Stephen Bates, former royal correspondent for the republican Guardian, the jubilee had demonstrated the Windsors’ remarkable ability to adapt and reinvent themselves: ‘Despite all their vicissitudes, the royals have pulled it off again.’ They manage this by slimming down the core royal family (to spike republicans’ economic arguments) and by keeping compromising figures such as Prince Andrew, now besmirched by links with the late paedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein, out of the Buckingham Palace balcony photos (he conveniently came down with Covid for the weekend).
In his controversial 1957 article The Monarchy Today, John Grigg (AKA Lord Altrincham) noted that many people were ‘able to combine a high regard for the Royal Family with a fundamental scepticism as to the viability of the institution’. Calling for a ‘Commonwealth court’ to reflect the new era, he said the idea that the monarchy would endure was not a ‘self-evident and unassailable’ proposition but almost an article of faith. In his essay, he described the Queen as a ‘priggish schoolgirl’. She has come a long way since then, as seen in her fun sketch with Paddington Bear this year and parachuting with James Bond into the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.
But the royals, Grigg said, ‘have to perform the seemingly impossible task of being at once ordinary and extraordinary.’ That was difficult for the Queen to do; it seems highly unlikely that her heirs can pull off the same trick.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.