“London Bridge is down” – that was the code phrase by which the death of the British monarch was communicated to newly appointed Prime Minister Liz Truss and those who will be involved in the colossal funeral ceremony, widely expected to be the most extensive and solemn funeral spectacle of this early third millennium.
Elizabeth II of Windsor, known around the world as “The Queen,” even before the syrupy (and much criticized by loyalists) TV series of the same name recently dedicated to her by Netflix, and in Italy as simply “la regina,” “the queen,” (with no need to add “Elizabeth”), passed away on Thursday at Scotland’s Balmoral Castle at the ripe old age of 96.
Her husband, Prince Philip Mountbatten, whom she married in 1947, had passed away last year. By 2015 she had become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria’s record. She ended up being the longest-reigning monarch, male or female, in British history.
“Elizabeth” was not an immortal, unchanging figure, as we had become accustomed to thinking of her, seeing her countless times in magazines, movies and TV news, and all along the transition from traditional to digital media.
Beneath the pompous décor of official ceremonies, she was a human being whose imperfections the monarchical establishment had always handled with embarrassment, having to navigate the storms of succession.
She was the queen of the United Kingdom, but this title ecumenically embraced many others. At the time of her departure, there were more than fifty states, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all under the umbrella of the so-called Commonwealth, the label under which the Empire was rebranded, which had finally begun to disintegrate immediately after World War II. She was head of the Commonwealth, succeeding her father George VI, a role that could not be transmitted according to lineage and will now have to be passed on to her heir and successor Charles. That is, before it disintegrates altogether, as some members of the royal family already hinted.
Her coronation, on June 2, 1953, was the first to be broadcast live on television, fully introducing the then-new twentieth-century media to the management of the ancestral relationship between monarchs and subjects, a mixture embraced reluctantly by the British royal house as a whole, given also the less than exemplary – according to good old bourgeois morality – conduct of many of Elizabeth’s heirs: the eldest son and future king Charles with his marital vicissitudes, daughter Anne, but especially the third-born, Andrew, entangled in serious and ugly scandals of sexual misconduct.
Thus began her seemingly endless carriage ride through the unimaginable privileges that members of Britain’s constitutional monarchy retain to this day, in defiance of the belated and never sufficient reinvention of other European monarchies. A carriage ride punctuated by graceful hand gestures and nodding heads as signs of greeting, which would have taxed anyone’s joints, marked by endless official visits and inaugurations, by the succession of heads of state, prime ministers, popes and clergymen, by momentous historical upheavals, civil conquests and defeats, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the devolution of Scotland, Wales – and of Northern Ireland itself – and, last but not least, the country’s entry into Europe in 1973 and its door-slamming exit in 2016.
She went through everything dressing in garish colors and hats that by themselves sustained the livelihood of thousands of magazines and fed the families of millions of journalists.
Her father George VI had ascended to the throne in 1936 after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, making him the heir presumptive, as they say. Despite some uncomfortable closeness with the Nazis – the German name of the family, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, hastily changed to Windsor in 1917; a prince consort, Philip, who was a brother-in-law of Nazi higher-ups, and Edward himself, who, together with his wife Wallis Simpson, was an avowed fan of Adolf Hitler – the British royal family didn’t run away in the face of Nazi danger, unlike the Italian one (eighty-nine years ago on Thursday), but “stayed on the battlefield,” earning the faith and respect of the population, together with which it managed to navigate the entire twentieth century.
It was a unique and unrepeatable feat among defeated, occupied and rebuilding Europe – which ended up symbolically tainted a few years ago when The Sun published the infamous photo showing Elizabeth, as a child, doing the Roman salute at the urging of the aforementioned Edward: the perfect cover for a punk rock album. But, all things considered, Elizabeth II managed her duty well during her interminable reign, while her achievements are in danger of being thrown to the wind in just a few years by her successors/relatives.
While the first Elizabethan era is remembered as an era of unquestioned expansion and power for England, the second, as historian Trestram Hunt has written, will be remembered differently: as that of decadence of national power, and especially of empire.
Between 1945 and 1965, the number of colonial inhabitants subject to the British monarch plummeted from seven hundred million to five million. Then, within three years of her rise to the throne, the Suez crisis and the hubris of Anthony Eden buried Britain’s world superpower ambitions altogether, continuing a long-lasting decline that had already begun with the Great War.
Through it all, Queen Elizabeth, always unshakably fond of dogs, hunting, safaris and horses, watched on smilingly, waving and ushering the country through the Keynesian era and its dialectic between fiscal and monetary policy, the rise of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North, while the financial sector grew by leaps and bounds and the tertiarization of the economy proceeded at a gallop, and while her admirers and observers – subjects, not citizens – never ceased to praise her ability not to meddle in the affairs of state, as stipulated by the (unwritten) national constitution.
The country then entered the full tumult of its relations with the European bloc, from its entry into the Economic Community to the trauma of “populism” and the referendum on Brexit in 2016, and the troubled exit process with its aftermath.
And when even the Economist said once that the monarchy was an obsolete ideal, it is clear that a certain “modernization” had to be not only accepted, but consciously cultivated.
To make people better appreciate the absurdity of the monarchy, the House of Windsor has therefore reluctantly ended up embracing not only the humanization of its members, but it has also – unwillingly at first – embarked on a path of rapprochement with its subjects through the careful curation of its own image: from the reluctance with which they accepted to be part of the (damaging) color documentary portraying them with their not very meaningful private interactions in the 1960s, to the queen joining Facebook, already some years ago.
It is all a colossal fiction that has accompanied the lives of generations of Britons and others, keeping them in a bottle of voyeuristic entertainment. And distracting them from certain “plutocratic” aspects.
It needs to be said: despite being the subject of mysterious speculation, never openly revealed or documented, Elizabeth’s wealth was recently estimated at around £1 billion. Forbes valued the monarchy’s wealth at more than seventy billion total, while the more conservative “rich list” of the Sunday Times puts it at around 350 million pounds.
To be fully honest, the rule that the queen should not interfere in political and constitutional affairs has not always been followed scrupulously. In one of its investigations, the Guardian revealed how Elizabeth II made use of her prerogatives to scrutinize more than a thousand bills before they reached Parliament. And memoranda leaked from the National Archives show how she lobbied for transparency legislation in the 1970s to ensure that her private wealth remained secret.
In the meantime, while generally reluctant to meddle in matters that did not concern her, she made several turns toward modernity. According to former Tory leader John Major, it was her decision, not the government’s, for the monarchy to start paying taxes; and according to other historians, it was only because of her that the system of primogeniture in the line of succession was abolished in 2011. These were great steps forward.
A blow to the public support for the monarchy came with the coldness shown by the late queen toward her daughter-in-law Diana Spencer, whose tragic end in 1997 caught the country in an overwhelming profusion of grief and teddy bears. Elizabeth’s perceived harshness and her downright cold demeanor towards a grief that had captured the imagination and empathy of millions of subjects had great costs in terms of polls and approval ratings.
But things soon got back on track, through a softening of her own image and that of the “firm” (as the royal family is called by its domestic and international advocates, as proof that nothing can resist the market, not even the metaphysical “two bodies” of the king according to Kantorowicz).
The throngs of supporters, however, are mostly populated by fans of Elizabeth, not royalists as such. And it remains to be seen whether the reign of the aging heir, Charles, who will now finally ascend to the throne denied to him by his mother’s longevity, will prove capable of continuing his mother’s ingenious kind of non-work: ferrying the monarchical institution from the feudal institution it always was and remains to the social and cultural fluidity that characterizes the decline of the West as a whole.
Now, what comes to mind is mostly the title of a tour-de-force album by The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead. Right now, millions of memes will preserve her memory, ferrying her into that digital universe where you can never die, even if you wanted to.
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