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Queen Elizabeth’s death marks the end of an era for the UK

Political developments
By Paul Hodges on 11-Sep-2022

If you walk along the Middle Eastern section of the British Museum, you cover thousands of years in a couple of hours. Empires arise and collapse again.  If harvests were good, trade and wealth would grow. If they were bad, social instability would rise as people fought for “their share” of a smaller cake.

When Queen Elizabeth II was born in 1926, as the map reminds us, the UK still had the largest empire that the world had ever seen. It covered a quarter of the earth’s landmass:

  • Even when she became Queen in 1952, it was still almost “the empire on which the sun never set”.
  • But today, at the end of her reign, most of its members have become independent

Yet for many years, and many Britons, Queen Elizabeth’s reign masked this decline. Not many heads of state receive such heartfelt tributes from leaders of the USA and France. As President Biden wrote:

“Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was more than a monarch. She defined an era… she charmed us with her wit, moved us with her kindness, and generously shared with us her wisdom..”

President Macron was similarly personal:

“No foreign sovereign has climbed the stairs of the Élysée Palace more often than she, who honoured France with six state visits and met each of its presidents…The Queen of sixteen kingdoms loved France, which loved her back.”

Even President Putin sent a telegram referencingthis difficult, irreparable loss”.

But the underlying message was clear, as Portugal’s leading newspaper noted in its headline. She was:

“The Queen who walked arm in arm with history and who watched Britain decline from the front row.”

It was a message that echoed the blunt assessment of US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson in 1962:

Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.”

For the past 40 years, the UK had seemingly found a new role via its EU membership. Trade with its European neighbours expanded, and its wealth grew.

But there were still many ‘Empire loyalists’. Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War in 1982 was often referenced to suggest that a new Global Britain could somehow recover its former role.

And last week, the contrast between these two views of history was highlighted by Liz Truss’ election as the UK’s 4th premier in the past 6 years.

In the corporate world, 4 CEOs in 6 years would be a sign of serious problems. And this concern was emphasised by the fact that Truss is the only Cabinet survivor from the David Cameron government.

Unlike her role model, Margaret Thatcher, her government’s lack of experience is also a major concern. As the photos confirm, she has instead come to power by building her brand via Instagram

On the biggest political issue of the day, she happily switched after the referendum from being a prominent Remain supporter to become a leading Brexiter.

Unfortunately for her, and for the country, she takes office facing a daunting set of major challenges as Politico’s analysis confirms. And unlike Thatcher in 1979, she cannot blame the previous government for them – as the Tories have been in power for the last 12 years.

Any one of these challenges could remove her from office very easily. The cost of living and energy crises were already set to dominate her first days in office, before the Queen’s death was announced.

The growing crisis in the health service will become even more evident in the winter months. And any of the other challenges could easily reach crisis proportions over time.

And Truss is going to be the first premier since Churchill to operate without the Queen’s support in the background.  As Robert Shrimsley wisely noted  in the Financial Times even before the Queen’s death:

“For all her understandable delight at becoming prime minister, few would envy Truss this moment. She is going to have to be one of the great premiers just to be a merely good one.”