What The death of Queen Elizabeth II means for the United Kingdom

ADVERTISEMENT

What the death of Queen Elizabeth II and ascension of King Charles III mean for the U.K.

Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, died Thursday. The word came from Buckingham Palace in the late afternoon that the queen had “died peacefully” at the family’s summer retreat at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. She was 96.

Her son Charles — who at his mother’s death ascended to the British throne as King Charles III, issued a statement saying that “the death of my beloved Mother, Her Majesty the Queen, is a moment of the greatest sadness for me and all members of my family. We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished Sovereign and a much-loved Mother. I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world.”

The news came only two days after the queen welcomed the newly minted Prime Minister Liz Truss to Balmoral, the first time in the queen’s long reign when the investiture of a new prime minister had taken place somewhere other than at Buckingham Palace. Truss was the 15th prime minister to serve in the 70 years of the queen’s reign, a reign marked by periodic political and economic upheaval, and the more recent traumas of terrorism — in particular the London bus bombings in 2005 — and the covid-19 pandemic and its myriad effects. Her time on the throne also saw social change in Britain and tumult within the royal family itself. And while support for the monarchy has seen its ups and downs, Queen Elizabeth was a widely respected and even revered figure.

In a special edition of the Global Grid Twitter Spaces series, Global Editor Tom Nagorski spoke to Deputy Global Editor Nikhil Kumar, who has lived and worked for many years in London and was there when the news came.

ADVERTISEMENT

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Nagorski: We knew several hours ago that the queen’s health was a matter of grave concern. The palace had put that word out. What’s the extent of the response that you’re already hearing and seeing in London?

Nikhil Kumar: We had news earlier today which expressed concern about her health. It was a very unusual statement that immediately put everybody on notice. I was near Kensington Palace just before we got the news that she had, in fact, passed. People were already gathering there. People had been gathering at Buckingham Palace during the day as well, in anticipation for updates about her health. Throughout the day in London, you heard people talking at bus stops and so on, waiting for news.

She has been, whatever you think about the monarchy and wherever you stand on the debate about whether it should or shouldn’t exist, a constant presence in the lives of almost everybody, certainly in this country, from the beginning.

She was queen for 70 years, and she just marked her Platinum Jubilee. Just very recently, they expanded the London Underground system, and the new line was named the Elizabeth line. There are images of the queen on stamps and coins. That profile has been in everybody’s life, in most cases, for their entire lives. Since they were born, for most people here.

ADVERTISEMENT

So I think all day today, no matter where people stood, they were just processing this information and the news.

TN: It’s interesting you distinguish between reverence for the monarchy, which is certainly a matter of question, versus reverence for this particular monarch. As you say, unless you’re in your 80s or 90s, you’ve not known another leader of the monarchy in the U.K. What else is there about the queen herself that has inspired those feelings, even among people who have no time for the palace, its trappings and the monarchy itself?

NK: As a general point, polls have shown over the last many years that young people are not quite as fond of the monarchy. But with the queen herself, in every poll, the support is there. And she comes out on top as the most prominent member of the royal family.

That’s regardless of where people stand on what they think about the institution of the monarchy and whether there should be an elected head of state or a constitutional monarchy, such as the one that the U.K. has. The queen herself, because of just the longevity of her reign, has been there for just such a long time. She’s just appointed Liz Truss, but for her it began with [Winston] Churchill. She has been there through all kinds of changes in British life, in international affairs, domestic matters, as this constant presence.

That means and has meant that the idea that she was going to pass was always anticipated as a moment of great significance. And as I said, you could stand on one side or the other of the monarchy debate, but that doesn’t take away the significance of her presence on the British stage and on the world stage.

TN: Liz Truss, some time ago, had expressed some of her own negative feelings about the monarchy. Again, not about the queen. Talk a bit, whether it’s through polling or more anecdotal reflections, about the way the British feel about the institution.

NK: The Liz Truss video is from a Liberal Democrat conference when she was a Liberal Democrat a long, long time ago, when she was at university. It was played again and again during this campaign that just ended to elect the new leader of the Conservatives and then of course the prime minister.

There was a poll last year which showed that if you ask people from their 20s and early 30s about whether or not they wanted a monarchy, whether they preferred an elected head of state, most people said that they would like a head of state. A small minority said that they didn’t want an elected state, that they preferred a constitutional monarchy. That changes, even in that poll, as you go older.

In a place like the city of London, if you speak to many people, they will probably tell you that they weren’t necessarily that keen on the monarchy. But again, the queen herself, in all this time, has remained popular. There was a poll in the end of May 2022 which asked people what they thought of various members of the world. The queen came out right on top.

It was interesting, if you break down what they approved of, what about her that they liked. A lot of people liked the fact that she was very traditional, about 53 percent in that poll described her that way. Forty-one percent said that she was a good representative for the country on the world stage, and not a dissimilar proportion said that she helped unite people across the United Kingdom.


ADVERTISEMENT

If you contrast with Prince Charles, who is now going to be monarch, only 14 percent said that he was their favorite member of the family. So, the queen has stood apart from the institution in that sense — because of how long she has been around, there’s no doubt.

But the monarchy itself, what will happen with that now? What are the questions that the new monarch will face? The questions that will be asked of the institution? It’s always tricky to try and do crystal ball-gazing as journalists, but I suspect that you’re probably now going to get more of those questions. Now that you have somebody who’s new, where it will be easier for people to question the institution than it was with her.

TN: It does emphasize the importance of the person who sits on the throne rather than the throne itself. We’re less than an hour from hearing this news, but you mentioned Charles’ low approval ratings, and he has been a figure of some controversy for many decades. He has been the man in waiting for all that time. What are the challenges for Charles going forward?

NK: He’s not been free of controversy over the years. He’s not a person that a lot of people are particularly fond of. Will that change when he becomes a monarch? I don’t know.

But it was interesting. In anticipation of this news, like so many other people, I was on Twitter and there was a commentator saying it’s entirely possible that when his coronation happens that, in fact, he benefits from that and that there is some period of popularity. We’ll have to wait and see.

ADVERTISEMENT

You will find that Prince William — his son — is more popular than Prince Charles, so it’s going to be tricky for him. He is a figure who has, over the years, made a lot of public statements, particularly on the issue of climate change and the environment, which has been an issue that’s been close to his heart.

Now one of the things about the queen was that she worked pretty hard to avoid making any kinds of statements in terms of political life. Charles, in the past, has certainly been comfortable expressing views when it comes to policymaking and so on. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that, when he does, in fact, sit on the throne. There are all these questions about him. But I think yes, the biggest question is going to be what happens with the public’s attitude.

The exit of Queen Elizabeth II is a bit like removing Big Ben from the skyline of London. Whatever you think about it, whether you like it or not, it’s just been a fixture. It’s been a presence. Charles does not have that. He’s going to come and sit on the throne at a time when this country is going through a lot of turmoil.

TN: Her actions, limited as they were in various moments of crisis — when she was Princess Elizabeth, walking through the streets of London during the German bombardment, right on through all sorts of domestic upheaval in the 1970s, economic crises, one of which persists today, the terror bombings in 2005, the pandemic — she has been steady in times of crisis.

What difference does it make, though, as a matter of dealing with the current crises in Britain, whether Queen Elizabeth is on the throne versus King Charles?

ADVERTISEMENT

NK: In policy terms, it doesn’t make a difference. But I think there is certainly a point in terms of the backdrop to all of this. This country is going through a period of very high inflation. It’s not unlike the 1970s. There is, of course, the Ukraine War, which has driven up energy prices. The first thing Truss had to do when she became prime minister was tackle that crisis.

This country is still recovering [from the pandemic]. The National Health Service [NHS] in this country is doing pretty badly. It was already doing pretty badly just before the pandemic because of the austerity measures in the years prior. Following the pandemic, the NHS is not doing very well in all kinds of metrics.

Particularly now at the end of summer, the weather’s shifting, it’s been raining all day in London today. There’s an energy price cut for households. We don’t know what will happen with markets as they head into a period where the energy part of the equation has a big question mark.

Society at large here, much like lots of other countries around the world, is still recovering from all of that. When inflation is extremely high, when the Bank of England governor said that regardless of what the prime minister does to help with the energy crisis, little can be done to avoid a recession.

Against this backdrop, the passing of the queen, this national fixture, becomes much, much more meaningful and significant. And now you’re going to have a period of mourning. There will be, of course, a funeral, and it is all happening against this, this very dark thing. Again, no matter where you stand on the debate about whether there should be a monarchy, this is all going to unfold against a very, very dark backdrop in this country, economically, socially and so on.

ADVERTISEMENT

And of course, there’s Brexit, the full impact of which wasn’t entirely clear because of covid, but now we’ll have to see what that really means in all kinds of ways. It’s a pretty dark and grim backdrop.

When one of the BBC presenters announced the queen’s death, he was wearing all black, the screen went dark, and it was a portrait of the queen against a black backdrop. That sums up what this country feels like at the moment. There is a black backdrop because of all these problems.

This figure of continuity is disappearing at the same time that everything else is shifting, in difficult ways.

TN: Many people have been saying the same thing in the last few hours — that this is just one more profound trauma for the nation. Or it may be a moment when, in a strange way, it helps the nation come together. I suppose it may be both of those things.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

TOPICS

UK