Lord Meghnad Desai writes: Queen Elizabeth II shepherded the UK into modernity


When she was crowned in 1952, it was already an outstanding event. News arrived that Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay had climbed Mount Everest. There were wishes expressed that given her name, perhaps a second Elizabethan Age — comparable to the first one (around the 16th century) — would be her great contribution. Back then, it looked like just a pious wish. Today, without a doubt, we can say that Queen Elizabeth II — who died at the age of 96 after a record 70 years on the throne, celebrated just recently in a spectacular ceremony — did rule over an efflorescence of British art, culture, literature, music, theatre that no one could have predicted.

Elizabeth was a Queen by accident. Her father was never the Prince of Wales. It was the abdication of Edward VII, swearing love for Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, that propelled his younger brother into the Royal seat. George VI, a shy, stuttering son of George V (1911-1936) came to the throne. Married to a “commoner” (also called Elizabeth) he had two daughters — Elizabeth and Margaret. In her second decade, Elizabeth, the daughter of George and Elizabeth, had to prepare to succeed her father.

World War II showed early on that a new “royal style” was about to be introduced. George VI and his consort played the people’s Royal Family to perfection. They stayed in London, toured the country, ate the same rations their subjects did and kept their morale up. The two princesses did their bit of social service too.

Princess Elizabeth had a charming (though less well-off) Prince Philip As her partner. His family, like all the royal families of Europe, had Victorian roots. But as members of one of the deposed royalties, they were not as glamorous. But in the event, the union of Philip and Elizabeth lasted 60 years and was extremely happy. Philip played the perfect consort, keeping a step behind but offering solid support. His death at the age of 99 last year was a severe blow to his wife and no doubt affected her health.

The 70 years of Elizabeth’s rule saw profound changes in Britain’s political standing. Winning the War but losing an Empire; refashioning the Commonwealth (to accommodate India becoming a Republic but still staying on); watching over the increasing racial and cultural diversity of Britain so that it is now the most multi-racial European nation; presiding over Britain’s gingerly entry into what became the European Union in 1971 and then, the exit in 2022. Her regime also witnessed the longest occupation by the British military (over 50 years) in Northern Ireland during the “troubles”. That ended only in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement and joint rule by the two religious communities, which had been contesting for control.

There was a social revolution in the Second Elizabethan Age. What was a staid, conservative, repressed society broke through into modernity. Not only was “swinging Britain” inaugurated in the early Sixties by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the explosion of pop music but homosexuality was legalised and abortion became available on the National Health Service. By the time of the last years of her reign, the full gamut of LGBTQI persons and their fight for identity became a part of daily conversations and debates.

It was during the Second Elizabethan Age that Britain had her first woman prime minister, women entered the two Houses of Parliament and the last public act the Queen performed was to elevate Britain’s third woman prime minister, Liz Truss. Yet, it was also on the issue of her daughter-in-Law Diana and her sudden death that Queen Elizabeth suffered the maximum public disenchantment.

It was also during her reign that the United Kingdom began to become aware of the separate nations within the Union — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will have to be seen if her successor, Charles III, can hold the Union together.

Elizabeth the Second leaves behind a sad country, the majority of whose inhabitants have not known any other monarch. She leaves behind a socially transformed but politically confused nation. She was loved by her subjects as was evident earlier this year during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

The writer is an economist and member of the UK’s House of Lords





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