Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Death of Queen Elizabeth II: The End of the “New Elizabethan Era”

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When Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, Britain was just seven years away from World War II. Reconstruction work was still ongoing, and rationing of essential items such as sugar, eggs, cheese, and meat would continue for about a year.

But the austerity and restraint of the 1940s gave way to the more prosperous 1950s. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that the Queen’s succession was hailed as the ‘new Elizabethan age’. Society was changing, and here was a young, beautiful queen at her helm.

Seventy years later, Britain looks very different. Elizabeth II reigned over perhaps the fastest technological expansion and socio-political change of any monarch in recent history. A look back at the life of Elizabeth II raises important questions, not only about how the monarchy changed, but also about how Britain itself changed in the 20th and 21st centuries.

If Elizabeth I’s reign was one of colonial expansion, conquest and domination, then the “new Elizabethan age” was one of decolonization and loss of empire.

When Elizabeth II ascended the throne, the last remnants of the British Empire were still intact. India had been granted independence in 1947, and other countries soon followed in the 1950s and 1960s. Although in existence since 1926, the current Commonwealth was established in the 1949 London Declaration, making member states “free and equal”. The Commonwealth has an air of colonial power as it shares a history with the Empire and continues to endow the British monarch with symbolic power.

The Commonwealth played a large part in the 1953 coronation ceremony, from television programs showing Commonwealth celebrations to the Queen’s coronation gown adorned with the floral emblems of the Commonwealth countries. She continued to celebrate the Commonwealth throughout her reign.

The Commonwealth’s colonial history is reproduced in the values ​​of Brexit and related nationalist projects, suffering from what Paul Gilroy calls “postcolonial melancholy”. The Queen was the living embodiment of British stoicism, the “lightning spirit” and the global imperial power on which so much of the Brexit rhetoric hung. What will the loss of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch do to the nostalgia that fuels contemporary right-wing politics?

At the coronation, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reportedly responded to suggestions that the ceremony be televised live, saying that “modern mechanical devices” would harm the coronation charm and “religious and spiritual aspects”. [not] be presented like a theatrical performance”.

Television was new technology at the time, and there were concerns that televising the ceremony would become too intimate. Despite these concerns, the televised coverage of the coronation was a great success. The research project Media and Memory in Wales found that the coronation played a formative role in people’s first memories of television. Even unenthusiastic monarchists could give an intimate account of their experiences.

The royal image has always been conveyed, from the monarch’s profile on coins to portraiture. For Elizabeth II, this meant a radical development: from the advent of television to tabloids and paparazzi to social media and citizen journalism (democratization and participatory processes). Because of this, we now have more access to monarchy than ever before.

In my book Running The Family Firm: How the monarchy manages its image and our money, I argue that the British monarchy relies on a careful balance of visibility and invisibility to reproduce its power. The royal family may be visible in spectacular (state ceremonies) or family (royal weddings, royal babies) forms. But the inner workings of the institution must remain secret.

The monarchy’s quest for this balance can be seen throughout the Queen’s reign. One example is the 1969 BBC-ITV documentary Royal Family. Royal Family used new techniques of ‘cinema verite’ to follow the monarchy for a year – what we now call ‘fly-on-the-wall’ reality television would recognize.

It gave us intimate glimpses of domestic scenes like family barbecues and the Queen taking little Prince Edward to a candy store. Despite its popularity, many were concerned that the voyeuristic style would break the mystique of monarchy too far. In fact, Buckingham Palace edited the 90-minute documentary so that it is not publicly available, and 43 hours of footage remained unused.

“Royal confessionals,” modeled after celebrity culture and notions of intimacy and disclosure, have plagued the monarchy in recent decades. Diana’s Panorama interview in 1995 was legendary when she told interviewer Martin Bashir about royal adultery, palace plots against her and her declining mental and physical health.

More recently, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle discussed what they described as “the company’s” racism, lack of accountability and denial of Markle’s mental health. These interviews really revealed the inner workings of the institution and broke the balance between visibility and invisibility.

Like the rest of the world, the monarchy now has an account on most major UK social media platforms. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Instagram account, maintained on behalf of Prince William, Kate Middleton and their children, is perhaps the most blatant example of royal familialism in modern times.

The photos come across as natural, improvised and informal, and the Instagram is framed as Cambridge’s ‘Family Photo Album’, offering ‘intimate’ insights into Cambridge family life. But as with any royal representation, these photographs are precisely staged.

Social media has given the monarchy access to a new audience: a younger generation who are more likely to scroll royal photos on phone apps than read newspapers. How will this generation react to the death of the monarch?

The Queen ascended the throne at a time of radical political change. Clement Atlee of the Labor Party had won office in 1945 in a sensational, landslide election that seemed to signal voters’ desire for change. The creation of the NHS in 1948 as the central policy of the post-war welfare state promised cradle-to-grave support.

Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party retook Parliament in 1952. Churchill was speaking to a different version of Britain: more traditional, more imperialist, and decidedly more monarchist. Such contrasting ideologies were evident in the reactions to the Queen’s coronation in June 1953.

David Low’s satirical protest cartoon ‘The Morning After’, published in the Manchester Guardian on 3 June 1953, showed party rubbish (bunting pennants, champagne bottles) and the text ‘Pound 100,000,000 Spree’ scrawled on the ground. The cartoon promptly sparked 600 letters of criticism for “distasteful” behavior and drew attention to contrasting political ideologies.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government began to systematically dismantle the post-war welfare state, instead emphasizing neoliberal free markets, tax cuts and individualism.

By the time of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” years around the turn of the millennium, the Queen was an older woman. Princess Diana was known to be the “people’s princess” of the time, as her new brand of intimacy and “authenticity” threatened to expose a “no-contact” monarchy.

In 2000, three years after Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris, support for the monarchy had hit rock bottom. The Queen was believed to have acted inappropriately, not responding to public mourning and “representing her people”. The Express, for example, ran the headline “Show Us You Care: Mourners Demand The Queen Lead Our Mourning”.

Eventually, she gave a televised address that softened her silence by emphasizing her role as a grandmother busy “helping” William and Harry deal with their grief. We’ve seen this grandmother role elsewhere too: in her 90th birthday photos in 2016, taken by Annie Leibowitz, she was seated in a home setting surrounded by her youngest grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This is the image of the Queen that many will remember: an elderly woman, immaculately dressed, clutching her iconic, familiar handbag. While she was head of state during many of the seismic political, social and cultural changes of the 20th and 21st centuries, the fact that she rarely expressed a political opinion means that she successfully navigated the monarch’s constitutional political neutrality.

She also made sure that she remained an icon. She’s never really been given a “personality” like other royals who have started a love-hate relationship with the public because we know more about her.

The Queen remained an image: in fact, she is the most represented person in British history. For seven decades, Britons have not been able to make a cash purchase without looking her in the face. Such everyday banality demonstrates the interdependence of the monarchy – and the queen – with the very fabric of Britain.

The death of the Queen will inevitably cause Britain to reflect on its past, present and future. Time will tell how the reign of Charles III. will look like, but one thing is certain: the “new Elizabethan age” is long gone. Britain is now recovering from recent breaches in its status quo, from Brexit to the COVID-19 pandemic to ongoing calls for Scottish independence.

Charles III inherits a country very different from that of his mother. What purpose, if any, will the next monarchy have for Britain’s future?The conversation

By Laura Clancy, Lecturer in Media, Lancaster University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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