One of Britain’s most important historical chapters came to an end this week with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II who died at the age of 96, leaving an unprecedented legacy and amidst widespread sadness within the British population.
Queen Elizabeth II ruled for longer than any other monarch in the history of the United Kingdom. Her rule extended from February 1952 to September 2022, making a reign longer than most other rulers in any other country. Her son Prince Charles, now King Charles III, was proclaimed as the new king a day after her passing.
Contrary to popular belief, Elizabeth II’s life was never smooth sailing. Part of her youth was spent sheltering from Nazi Germany’s targeted bombardments of Britain, which reached Buckingham Palace in London, the official residence of the British Royal Family. It was targeted by the German Luftwaffe on 8 September 1940, ironically the same day Elizabeth II passed away 82 years later.
As a teenage princess, she was seen visiting the wounded in hospitals and visiting bomb shelters when the German bombardment of British cities was at its height. These actions increased her popularity among the British public more than a decade before she was pronounced the country’s queen.
The Nazi bombardment literally levelled cities such as Coventry in the centre of the country as a result of the 196 tons of bombs dropped on it. The Nazi propaganda machine even coined a new word, Coventieren, which means to devastate or raze a city to the ground. For the young Princess Elizabeth, this was hardly the story of a fairytale princess. Instead, she was familiar with calamities from her earliest years.
On the day of her coronation, she was tasked with the uphill battle of keeping what was left of a once mighty empire stretching to all four corners of the world from entirely crumbling. She felt she had to make concessions to keep the UK intact as well as to placate those countries wishing to stay under British sovereignty. The inevitable independence of dozens of states across the world was eventually conceded.
The UK was reeling under huge economic strain following World War II, and this continued into the 1970s. Its meddling in international affairs, such as during the Suez Crisis or Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956, proved to be extremely costly and a last straw for the ailing British Empire. It confirmed the US and former Soviet Union as the new superpowers of the post-War era.
Elizabeth II realised that the era of the British Empire was coming to an end, but this did not mean that Britain would become irrelevant or wither away like other bygone empires. The British monarchy attempted to contain the remaining states within the Empire, whether those that had declared full independence or those that had chosen to be symbolically ruled by the British, in the shape of the new Commonwealth of Nations in 1949.
British cultural life during Elizabeth’s rule was unmatched except by that of the US. Since the 1960s, British cultural products have been prevalent all across the globe, introducing pop groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Depeche Mode and countless others who have influenced the world of music and pop culture.
Film series such as James Bond became a global phenomenon. Book series such as Harry Potter became the world’s most successful in recent decades and presented a different outlook on British culture for newer generations who became fans of this fantasy world set in Britain.
Britain is now mourning its beloved queen, who was a symbol of the country’s unity in the face of many challenges. The first prime minister during Elizabeth II’s long reign was Winston Churchill, who served four years of his second term in office under her. Churchill was born in 1874, while the country’s current prime minister, Liz Truss, was born in 1975, 101 years later. Elizabeth II thus witnessed many generations of politicians. When she was proclaimed queen in 1952, historical figures such as king Farouk was still king of Egypt, while president Harry S Truman and premier Joseph Stalin were at the head of the US and former Soviet Union.
Maintaining an exemplary constitutional monarchy in the UK is one of Elizabeth II’s greatest legacies. At no point was she seen to be partisan nature or show favouritism to either of the two leading parties. No matter how a prime minister from the Conservative Party or the Labour Party acted, she kept the same distance from both and left parliament free to handle all political matters. The same thing was true of the politics of other countries in the Commonwealth, among them Australia or Canada.
The monarchy is one of the most important factors that shielded the UK from challenges from World War II to the final minutes of Elizabeth’s life. Its stability enabled London to become the biggest financial centre in the world, even surpassing New York.
That said, Queen Elizabeth may not be viewed with the same loving eye by some across the world for a variety of reasons. Many still view her as representing a once-loathed Empire or as a reminder of British international policies. However, for many across the world and for most of her British subjects, she was a great monarch who steered the country to safety during the hardest of times while remaining grounded and close to the people. She is credited with making the Royal Family accessible to the public, something which would eventually be replicated by other monarchies across the world. Her famous sense of humour was known to break the ice in other royal families.
Messages of condolences have poured into Britain to mourn the former queen who visited over 100 countries during her reign. Some of the most heartfelt condolences came from Germany, where millions mourned her passing. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed his deep sadness at the death of a woman who played a major role in the “German-British reconciliation after the horrors of World War II,” as he described it.
This began with the queen’s visit to Germany in 1965, marking a new era between the once warring sides.
The Elizabethan era that stretched from the early 1950s all the way to the second decade of the 21st century will be remembered in history as one of the greatest in British history despite its challenges, thanks to the wisdom of Elizabeth II. That wisdom spared the UK the fate of other monarchies in Europe, such as the Italian or Greek ones.
Queen Elizabeth II will always be an iconic figure of both the 20th and the 21st centuries, and she passes the task of continuing the traditions she lived by to her son King Charles III.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.