The death of a monarch is an entirely foreseeable event, the solemn formalities hardwired into the rituals of dynastic succession. But it is also an event that is difficult, partly for the simple reason of good manners, to anticipate with any accuracy at any particular time.
With the death at Balmoral of Queen Elizabeth II, a prepared but nevertheless shocked nation finds itself at such a moment, and it is important that our troubled politics and our wounded civil society face up to it as calmly and sensibly as possible, because this event will resonate politically and constitutionally for years to come.
Elizabeth was on the throne for so many years that, through no fault of her own, she made this process difficult. She reigned longer than any other monarch in British history, and by a considerable margin. She is the only one to have reigned for more than 70 years, a span that is unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future. Until yesterday, she was the only monarch that the vast majority of us had ever known – you have to be at least 75 to have had any memory of George VI’s reign. This is a big, big event for Britain.
She presided over a system of doing monarchy that in some ways felt timeless, but which was in fact adaptive and distinctive. Her staying power and her skill at keeping her distance have bequeathed a model of monarchy that will not be easy for Charles III to replicate, especially if, as is distinctly possible, he fails to earn the breadth of respect that Elizabeth enjoyed.
The signs were suddenly ominous yesterday. It is unusual for Buckingham Palace, normally so tight-lipped and uncommunicative on such matters, to volunteer the kind of frank statement on the monarch’s health problems that it put out. It is even more unusual for the scattered and sometimes warring members of the royal family to descend en masse to the monarch’s bedside at Balmoral.
This is the moment, nevertheless, for which the new monarch has long prepared, and it will be marked by change at least as much as hallowed continuity. But it is a process of change in which the many institutions of British society, not just the palace, are entitled to have their say.
Even monarchy evolves, albeit slowly. It evolved under Elizabeth, as it evolved under George VI. It will certainly evolve further under Charles, who is determined to slim down the numbers of working royals and who is also certain to find himself ceasing to be head of state of many Commonwealth countries. Yet, outside the palace walls, a collective taboo seems to have evolved when it comes to discussing the future of British life without Elizabeth.
There was an egregious but revealing example of this habit as recently as January. During the Partygate furore, Keir Starmer stood up in the Commons and drew a contrast between the lax attention to Covid rules in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street and the punctilious and poignant observance of those rules by the widowed Queen at the funeral of Prince Philip during the pandemic in 2021.
It was a contrast that millions had grasped for themselves, but it drew an immediate reprimand from the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, who told Starmer: “We normally would not, and quite rightly, mention the royal family. We do not get into discussions on the royal family.”
This is an infantile stance for a senior parliamentarian. Parliament may not be supposed to get into discussions on the royal family, but everyone else in the country does. So, of course, do the press, which knows that the royals – whether in the form of the exemplary Cambridges, the troubled Sussexes, the disgraced Andrew or the continuing allure of Diana – sell. It passes belief that parliament should have such a pointless self-denying ordinance on the system of constitutional monarchy on which its own supremacy rests.
The idea that Britain’s way of doing a monarchy is the only possible model is nonsense. Ours is the only European monarchy that is also the head of an established church. Partly for that reason, ours is the only one that has an elaborate coronation to mark a new reign. If Liz Truss had been a Swedish political leader, she would have travelled to see the speaker of the Riksdag this week to be appointed as prime minister, not the monarch. Sweden’s king has no role in summoning or dissolving parliament either, and he does not give royal assent to legislation.
These are among the many terms and conditions of constitutional monarchy that a grownup country might reasonably discuss, particularly at the end of a long reign such as Elizabeth’s. The list would certainly include the many forms of royal prerogative powers that are exercised by Britain’s prime minister, but which the Johnson era helped to make controversial.
Do not underestimate the upheaval in British life that this dynastic moment will trigger. Elizabeth II spent 70 years as a low-key but extremely effective unifying force in a nation that is visibly pulling itself apart. Her passing will remove that force, which her heirs cannot assume they will be able to replicate. In its way, this succession will be one of the biggest tests to face modern Britain. Politics needs to be involved.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist
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