Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom passed away on the 8th of September. In addition to inviting the reader to see the obituary of the monarch prepared by Gazeta do Povo, the occasion raises some reflections. In the case of political issues, none of them are very short term, of course, since the next few months will be marked by official ceremonies. And then, however, what can be the concrete political impact of the death of the longest-lived monarch in British history?
For much of the British population and of several countries dominated by the crown, Elizabeth II was a symbol, in the positive sense of the word. For these people, it meant resilience, stability, a familiar face within politics. It also meant, especially for the elderly, the British glories, the “good times” when these people felt they ruled a large portion of the Earth, she who was the last monarch of the British Empire as she once was.
Of course this is a summary objective, restricted to one paragraph. The fact is that Elizabeth II connected the British generation Z of 2022 with the baby boomers of the 1950 decade, an amalgamation of British identity and constant presence in the imagination of these supporters. She has also become a symbol of conduct when compared to political and personal life scandals involving children, sister, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. In short, Elizabeth was a kind of “collective grandmother”, who has reigned since the decade of 1950 and whose public functions date back to the Second World War.
For all that, the symbol that was Elizabeth II will not have a replacement. At least not his son, the new King Charles III, or his grandson in the line of succession. And this generates, and will generate, concrete political repercussions, not just in the gossip tabloids or in the protocols and codes of etiquette. The first and most obvious aspect is the fact that the popular image of Charles III is far from favorable.
In recent years, at various times, there has been speculation that he may abdicate the throne in the name of his eldest son, William. Recall that British law is customary and the abdication precedent that exists today is that of Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936. On that occasion, his abdication took his lineage with him, to prevent an eventual son with his commoner, foreign and divorced wife from claiming the crown at some point.
In order for Charles III to abdicate on behalf of his son, if any, a different law would be required, passed by parliament. For a number of reasons, including mourning the longest-serving British monarch, this is unfeasible. Charles III is king, it remains to be seen if he will be crowned. Edward VIII, even, was not crowned, since the ceremony is not immediate, to respect the period of mourning for the deceased monarch. Interestingly, Charles III’s unpopularity can be partially reversed, depending on his role in his mother’s farewell ceremonies.
There are other possible effects on British domestic politics. Not in the short term, of course. No political leadership will run the risk of appearing to disrespect due rites and national mourning for this powerful symbol that has passed away. One is the strengthening of the Scottish demand for a new independence referendum, something already promised by Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party has a majority in the local parliament. Opinion polls on this topic are virtually tied.
Scottish independence is also strengthened by Brexit, which, even more, affects relations on the island of Ireland, an issue that we have already seen in several occasions here in our space. The loss of the monarchy’s most powerful symbol could, in the long run, strengthen Irish republicanism. Reminding our reader that, in the context of Northern Ireland, “republicanism” means not just a separation from the United Kingdom, but a reunion with the Republic of Ireland, on a unified island.
This is not to say that Elizabeth’s death directly strengthens these guidelines, but mainly that her symbol strength prevented the greatest progress of Scottish independence or Irish republicanism. The same effect is in republicanism for the other domains of the British crown. When we say that Elizabeth was the last monarch of the empire, it is about remembering how many territories became independent and also how many domains of the crown became republics totally separate from the United Kingdom.
Even in the first decades of her reign, Elizabeth lost the crowns of Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana, nations in which she was Chief of state even after independence. This was not just a historical process. Fiji and Barbados became republics in recent years. Barbados was even the subject of a column here in our space and already on that occasion we were talking about the strengthening of republicanism in the British kingdoms after the queen fulfilled the natural course of life, which happened now.
In the medium term, we will have the growth of republicanism in the New Zealand, Australia and the Caribbean. In May 2021, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she believed the country would soon be a republic. Polls put a kind of “tie” on the topic in popular opinion, while agendas such as a new national flag, without British symbols, and greater Maori participation in politics have greater support.
In Australia, in several opinion polls, republicanism wins, in addition to being a position defended by the Labor Party and the Greens, in addition to being strong in the Liberal Party. The same debates cited, about flag and political role of native populations, also apply. In the case of these two countries, what can maintain ties with London will not be the monarchy or King Charles III, but the fear of more sour relations with China. Republicanism would probably mean greater approximation with the USA.
It would be naive to think that Elizabeth’s death, at the end of the political trajectory of a such a powerful symbol that his reign was, it would have no political repercussions. It will be a great national commotion, perhaps worldwide, but, after this commotion, many people will ask themselves: “what now?”. And many of the answers that will emerge will not be pleasant to the ears of London, much less the new King Charles III.