When Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, the sun never set over the British Empire. The decline had already begun with India’s independence in 1947, but Winston Churchill, who returned to lead the government during the young sovereign’s first steps, was determined to cling to an empire that was still powerful.
At the time of her disappearance, 70 years later, Elizabeth II was still the queen of 14 countries beyond those that make up the United Kingdom (at her height there were 32). However – aside from Canada, Australia and New Zealand – these nations are mostly small remnants of the former empire in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Everyone else has drifted away from the crown, even though they maintain a privileged link through the Commonwealth.
No doubt the next few days will be marked by a planetary grief for the loss of a sovereign who seems to have always been present, regardless of the age or origin of each of us. But we can already ask ourselves what the influence of the monarchy will be after its demise, in a world that is undergoing colossal change.
“From the Empire to Brexit”: perhaps this is a too brutal summary of the reign of Elizabeth II, but basically it is a faithful description of the United Kingdom in recent decades, which has never stopped shrinking and risks yet another amputation.
Other countries could in fact abandon the monarchical symbol. The last to do so, in 2021, was Barbados, a Caribbean island inhabited by 300,000 people whose government proclaimed that “the time has come to leave our colonial past behind”. The list will not end with Barbados. The news went fairly unnoticed, but last May, when Labor won the legislative elections in Australia, they appointed an undersecretary for the republic. In fact, the party would like to organize a referendum to pass from the monarchy to the republic in case it gets a second mandate.
With the death of Elizabeth II not only the colonial page is turned, but also the postcolonial one. Elizabeth was a direct descendant of Queen Victoria – whose jubilee, in 1897, coincided with the heyday of the British Empire – and she experienced the postcolonial transition. Her successor will have to face a completely different world.
Elizabeth was queen of a vanished empire but also of a United Kingdom that has no place in the world. The confidentiality she was forced into prevented her from speaking out publicly about Brexit. British tabloids have sometimes attributed favorable views to her, but other sources have revealed that her attachment to Europe was immense.
Of the 15 heads of government that Elizabeth met in her seventy years of reign and with whom she took tea every week, four followed at a rapid pace after the 2016 referendum. The last official act of the sovereign, on 6 September , was to receive the resignation of Boris Johnson and to instruct Liz Truss to form the government.
Elizabeth lived the first phase of her reign in dialogue with Winston Churchill. It is unlikely that at the end of her life she was equally impressed by the occupants of Downing street. In the meantime, an era has changed. Elizabeth II experienced the greatness and decay of an empire on which the sun ended up setting.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)