Questions loom about the monarchy and economy after Queen Elizabeth II

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After Queen Elizabeth II, two questions for the U.K.: What to do with the economy? What to do with the monarchy?

There is no getting around the fact that, from the outside, it appears odd: a modern nation mourning a 96-year-old monarch in the 22nd year of the 21st century. No doubt it also feels odd for many of Queen Elizabeth II’s — now King Charles III’s — subjects in the United Kingdom.

Protocol was strictly followed when the news came: On the BBC, anchors wore black as they announced Queen Elizabeth’s death. The tone was somber. In the center of London, outside Buckingham Palace, crowds gathered under leaden skies. Although the profound sense of loss and of something having shifted was undeniable, not all were in mourning. A young couple huddling under an umbrella on the Mall, the regal-red avenue that runs down from the palace gates to Trafalgar Square, said they had come to witness the spectacle. “We don’t really see the point of the monarchy,” the man added, unprompted by me. His companion nodded, and then said — also unprompted — that London felt a “bit bleak.”

Indeed it does, more than a “bit.” As has been noted countless times already, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of an era. Even eras, plural; one having to do with the nation, one with the reach of the British royal family itself. The queen was a constant presence over seven decades of ups and downs in the life of her country. And as those decades passed, Queen Elizabeth’s realm evolved and shrank dramatically.

“She was born when Britain ruled a global empire of some 600 million people,” the Guardian noted in an editorial published after her death. “She died when Britain was a medium-sized northern European country with an uncertain future.”

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A more accurate assessment, certainly, than the one proffered by Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss who said following the queen’s death that Britain was “thriving.” But even “uncertain future” understates what this shrunken former colonial power is living through. And perhaps that helps explain why this moment feels so “bleak,” even for many who profess no love for the queen or the institution she represented.

Because in addition to mournful crowds and the funereal columns of black London cabs that lined up, in another sign of respect, outside the palace on Thursday, Britain now faces a pair of enormous and very different questions about its way forward:

How, first and foremost, to deal with an economic crisis as grave as any in decades? And then what exactly is the future of the monarchy, now that the only monarch most Britons have ever known is gone?

Where royal family meets economic crisis

Obituary writers have paid tribute to the Queen Elizabeth’s ability to reassure the nation during past crises — mostly, it must be said, by just being there, a quiet, unchanging presence through all manner of upheaval.

For many here, this is what adds an extra trauma to the news of her passing.

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The queen died in the midst of a particularly difficult upheaval, and thus the period of mourning unfolds against a grim backdrop. To take one example, the end of the second Elizabethan age was marked on Friday morning by the suspension of planned strikes by tens of thousands of postal and transport workers. Buffeted by a worsening economic storm, they have been calling for higher wages. The queen’s death moved the organizers to postpone their strikes until after the public mourning period has ended. It was just one way in which the pathos of the economic crisis has met the pathos of Queen Elizabeth’s passing.

But the pressures on ordinary Britons will not pause for memorials — and such pressures are only intensifying. The cost of living here is rising at its fastest pace in four decades, as food and fuel prices climb — fanned in Britain, as in many other places, by the impact of the war in Ukraine.

Bringing this crisis under control was agenda item number one for Truss when she moved into Downing Street earlier in the week. It is why her maiden remarks as prime minister, delivered just two days before the queen’s death, gave little sense of a “thriving” nation.

“We now face severe global headwinds caused by Russia’s appalling war in Ukraine and the aftermath of covid,” she said, conceding that dealing with these challenges “won’t be easy.”

A day later, the British pound fell to its lowest level against the U.S. dollar since 1985. One financial market watcher broached the prospect of an IMF bailout if Britain continues to hurtle down the rocky road it now finds itself on.

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Even those who consider such prognoses extreme concede that the near future for Britain looks stark. “Look, we’re not going to lie,” began a recent Financial Times column. “The U.K. has had a rough decade, and the outlook is even worse. It has the highest inflation rate of any G-10 country, the weakest growth forecasts and an external deficit that would make Argentina blush.”

The UK’s National Health Service, meanwhile, is struggling to recover from the ravages of the pandemic. The number of people waiting for routine hospital treatment now stands at close to 7 million, while the heath system struggles to fill tens of thousands of vacancies. The causes for the gaps are various — from the immense stress faced by healthcare workers during the pandemic to Brexit, which has led to a drop in European nurses coming to work in Britain. The net result is an essential national institution under pressure — in a country facing pressure on multiple other fronts.

It’s no wonder, then, that London feels “bleak.”

“Bleak” — and, as the Guardian noted, “uncertain,” for so much of what happens next is unclear. Truss has announced a plan to shield ordinary Britons from a sudden jump in energy bills. But as the war in Ukraine persists, what happens if global energy prices vault to new records? And what of Brexit? Britain’s divorce deal with Europe remains a contentious issue, with a bitter dispute over key provisions threatening to further sour relations with what remains its biggest trading partner.

What to do with the monarchy

Only a day after the queen’s death, conversations and newspaper columns in the U.K. and beyond have — if only gently — begun to take up what might be called the “life-after-Elizabeth” questions for the monarchy: Should it change? Is it still relevant? In the modern era, with its hugely popular standard-bearer gone, should it continue to exist at all?


The Harvard University historian Maya Jasanoff made her view known in a New York Times editorial published on the day of the Queen Elizabeth’s death: “Now that she is gone, the imperial monarchy must end too.”

Jasanoff’s was the more academic version of the conversational point made by that young couple on the Mall in London — namely, “We don’t really see the point of the monarchy.” Such questions and quiet debates will hang over the period of mourning and beyond. The immediate question being: What should the monarchy mean, and what should it stand for?

If recent polls are anything to go by, it certainly still means something to most Britons. In a late 2021 survey, three in five respondents said they felt the institution should be preserved. But that was long before the queen’s passing. Will they feel the same under King Charles III?

As Grid has reported, the new king suffers from being less popular not only than his mother but also than his son William, who is now next in line for the throne. Questioning the monarchy is more likely when there are questions about the monarch.

And if the institution is to be preserved, then how — and in what form? It might be too early to tell. There are very different models to be found not far from the British Isles, in the nations of Scandinavia in particular, where the royal families are relatively modern and more down to earth and — perhaps as a consequence — also highly popular. Monarchies from Spain to the Netherlands have made efforts to modernize as well with mixed results. Charles himself has been public about his wish to “downsize” the British monarchy.

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Among the distinguishing features of the British variant is that the queen — and now king — still have “subjects” in 14 other nations. Just that sentence feels like a throwback, a vestige of the era of colonial empire, one that growing ranks of those who live in these places would no doubt agree needs to go.

As the Guardian noted in its editorial: “Let us be sensible enough, as a changed and changing nation, to recognize that the monarchy will and must change too. These will be days of solemnity. But it will soon be the right time to debate these issues seriously, with nothing ruled out, and if possible without the mesmerized self-delusion that has so often surrounded the subject.”

All of which means that long after their queen is laid to rest, Great Britain will face a period of months, if not years, in which the future of its economy and this grand old institution will be in question.

“Uncertain” only begins to describe it.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

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

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