The Elizabethan Age has come to an end

The U.K. is having an identity crisis now that their longest reigning monarch has died.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II brought the end of the Elizabethan Age. It is worth asking what this age was and what it represented. Her reign witnessed drastic societal changes as the United Kingdom sought to rebuild itself following the end of the Second World War. When Queen Elizabeth II was proclaimed in 1952, the United Kingdom was a global empire. By the time she died, her country had long lost its colonies in return for a commonwealth and had forsaken its membership in the large collective organization — the European Union — that it had originally joined to combat the potential economic crises brought on by the disintegration of its empire. Moreover, this brings up a second key question: what is the United Kingdom to be in the 21st century? It may be too early to tell, but surely it will be different than it was in the Second Elizabethan Age. Modern studies of nationalism have commonly focused on the idea that nations are imagined communities, or rather inventions of the people who inhabit them. It is worth pushing this idea further to analyze the relation that identity has to the nation. After all, if a nation is merely an invention, then it can always be reinvented. In this case, the United Kingdom and its subsequent commonwealth now have to decide what they are to be in the wake of the queen’s passing. This is because the United Kingdom now faces an identity crisis as a nation, not because Queen Elizabeth II has died but because what she represented has died with her.

The passing of the Victorian Age to the Edwardian Age in the early 20th century was simultaneously the passing of the height of British hegemony to the calm before the storm that would culminate in the First World War. After the war, the British Empire retained its imperial practices, but the metaphorical torch had been taken by — rather than passed to — the United States. The passing of the Second Elizabethan Age may not be as drastic as this historical precedent, but it already has the potential to be a societal break for the United Kingdom. With the outbreak of a major European war in Ukraine and the United Kingdom still finding its place in the world after leaving the European Union in 2016, it is worth asking how much the stability of Queen Elizabeth II will be missed now that King Charles III is the figurehead of a new United Kingdom. Throughout the vast majority of the post-war years, Queen Elizabeth II was the figure who was consistently there for the United Kingdom. Even if she was not directly influencing policies in government, her presence alone acted as a symbol for her country. Prime ministers came and went but she stayed. The English poet Philip Larkin summarized her as a symbol of stability quite well when he wrote, “In times when nothing stood / But worsened, or grew strange, / There was one constant good: / She did not change.” These may be the best words to summarize the attitude of the Second Elizabethan Age, but the words of the past may no longer ring true in the present.

How lonely is it to be the United Kingdom today? How unified are they really? The country no longer has an empire, a collective organization or a popular monarch. The commonwealth that Queen Elizabeth II was so proud of now stands on shaky ground. Some of those commonwealth countries, particularly in the Caribbean, have begun expressing desires for independence with some additionally calling for slavery reparations. To those countries especially, the monarchy can be seen as a symbol of colonialism. The very name of Great Britain implies that Britain is great when it is not British because its greatness comes from outside of the British Isles. Put another way, the greatness of Britain has been ultimately tied to its empire, to paraphrase the influential British activist Akala. The future of the commonwealth in this century seems more likely to lie in its dissolution than in its existence. This is not just because of some Caribbean countries’ desire for independence, but because the United Kingdom is becoming less of a global presence. Brexit is the clearest example of this: the longing to be free from continental Europe’s problems signifies a greater focus on introspection. A result of all of this is that there is not a place for the commonwealth in the world of today.

The death of the queen brings up many questions of identity: what is the role of the monarchy in the 21st century? What does it mean to be a part of the United Kingdom? Is the commonwealth merely another form of the white man’s burden? What will the United Kingdom do to address issues of race? Moreover, there is still the ever-present question of what is the United Kingdom to become in the wake of Brexit? None of these questions are able to be answered easily, which if anything, may show how important they are to ask.

Post Author: Dylan Moucka