Photo credit to Chris Levine.
At the beginning of her 63-year reign, which today officially exceeded that of another queen, Victoria, Winston Churchill was prime minister of the United Kingdom, former prime minister Clement Atlee was still leader of the Labour Party and Harry Truman was just entering the final year of his presidency in the United States.
India was enjoying the fifth anniversary of its formal independence from Great Britain and some countries, like Belize, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya, were still British colonies. The Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin was still alive (though would die in just over a year), and the Cold War would sludge on for another 38 years. Mao Zedong would have nearly a quarter-century ahead of him as the ruler of Communist China. Charles de Gaulle was still six years away from founding France’s Fifth Republic, and the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s European Union, would not be formed until the 1957 Treaty of Rome — and it would be another 20 years before the United Kingdom would be permitted to join the EEC, over two of de Gaulle’s vetoes.
As of today, at least, the halfway point of Elizabeth’s reign is in 1984, when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was still in her second term and US president Ronald Reagan had yet to win reelection. US basketball player Michael Jordan had just been drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and the world had never heard of Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, 2Pac, Britney Spears or Green Day.
Consider this: Diana, who married Elizabeth’s first son, Charles, the Prince of Wales, was a princess for only around one-fourth of Elizabeth’s reign — from her marriage to Charles in 1981 to her untimely Paris death in 1997. (But note that the British monarchy’s lowest point, in the second Elizabethan era, came in the early hours following Diana’s death — and that the media-savvy perspective of former prime minister Tony Blair, along with the saccharine ‘cool Britannia’ sugar high of New Labour’s first term, did much to restore the monarchy’s luster).
The very presence of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of the House of Windsor is so staggering because, for more than 63 years, she has been such a reassuringly stolid face of the British monarchy that she is now the living embodiment of both what it means to be British and what it means to be a monarch. That’s not hyperbole. Of the 39 countries in the world that use monarchies (constitutional or otherwise), Elizabeth is the head of state for 16* of them!
All of which is a long way of saying that here in the year 2015, one way to think about the postwar era is simply to think of the age of Elizabeth — the new Elizabethan era.
The 89-year-old Elizabeth, who by most accounts remains in good health, might rule for another decade or longer. After all, her mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, lived to the ripe old age of 101. If she matches that maternal longevity, the second Elizabethan era could stretch into the year 2027 (for those of you keeping score, that’s hypothetically two years after the end of president Hillary Clinton’s second term in the White House).
But it also means that in the post-Elizabethan era, the Papua New Guineas of the world, to say nothing of republicans in Canada, Australia and even Great Britain itself, may wonder why exactly the hereditary line of an initially English throne, now occupied by what used to be the German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, serves as the titular head of their country. The British monarchy is a stubborn remnant of the colonial era and, as graciously as Elizabeth II may perform the role, her longevity makes her something of an exception. In the 21st century, what right should Prince Charles — or his son, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge — have to serve as the head of state of Jamaica? Or Belize? That seems especially true when it is almost assured that neither Charles nor William will reign nearly as long as Elizabeth, and neither certainly will not match her as a touchstone for monarchy worldwide.
In Great Britain, it seems that this weekend will see the Labour Party elect Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, a man of many unconventional views, which include the notion that the United Kingdom should become a republic. At a time when Scottish voters rejected full independence from the rest of Great Britain (after a 307 year-long union) by a margin of just 10% of the voting electorate, there’s no reason to assume that the monarchy will necessarily exist in perpetuity after Elizabeth goes.
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee exemplified the monarchy’s existential crisis in a column a few days ago, when she called for the monarchy’s abolition — but not until after Elizabeth passes from living legend into the final ranks of history. Cold cost-benefit analyses of the British monarchy’s benefit, from London to Kingston to Canberra, will intensify upon Elizabeth’s passing, whenever that day comes.
Some political scientists argue that constitutional monarchies are superior to democracies like the United States because they effectively separate the functions of ‘head of state’ and ‘head of government,’ thereby depoliticizing the ‘head of state’ role. In these countries, the head of state is an apolitical figurehead who intervenes in governing only at great uncertainty, such as in May 2010, when no single political party won a majority in the House of Commons. But monarchy advocates argue further that hereditary monarchies like the British throne are superior to countries like Italy and Germany, where apolitical presidents are elected directly (or selected by parliamentary representatives) because hereditary monarchs have absolutely no claim to represent their electorates. The antics of Czech president Miloš Zeman and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, both of whom won their respective country’s first direct presidential elections, and both of whom have tried to consolidate presidential power, prove the wisdom in that view.
As Toynbee writes, however, the monarchy gives the British a crutch against examining their own unwritten constitution and a lack of checks and balances:
But the institution of monarchy is deeply ingrained in the British psyche as a conservatism that tolerates the intolerable – the corrupt payola House of Lords, our archaic constitution and our crude voting system that defies people’s choice of a party reflecting their beliefs.
In much the same way that the US constitution traps the United States, for both good and bad, into some fairly antiquated institutions (ahem, Electoral College), British-style constitutional monarchy locks the United Kingdom into an even more antiquated system that evolved in the long-term struggle between monarch and parliament. Today, though, with a majority in the House of Commons, a prime minister can basically do whatever he or she wants, and it wasn’t until 1997 that Gordon Brown, as chancellor, announced operational independence for the Bank of England. Moreover, the royal family’s wealth, more even than in the understated monarchies of The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, reinforces the dark class hierarchies of British society.
Ultimately, Elizabeth and her longevity provide a crutch for the monarchy itself, and that has shielded it from heightened scrutiny. There’s no rule that all of her successors will fill the role so perfectly nor that an elected monarch (for a fixed term or for life) would not be a better system.
* In order of descending population, those countries are: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Jamaica, the Solomon Islands, Belize, the Bahamas, Barbados, Santa Lucia, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Tuvalu.