Queen's death leaves Britain grappling with its sense of national identity

The queen's death last week has left many in Britain anxious and unmoored. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - No sooner had the long-anticipated news broken - Queen Elizabeth II was dead - than Britain activated Operation London Bridge, the painstakingly choreographed funeral plan that guides the country through the rituals of tribute and mourning that culminate with her burial 10 days later.

But the plan, with its metronomic precision, masks something far messier: a rupture to the national psyche.

The queen's death last week, at 96, is a genuinely traumatic event, leaving many in this stoic country anxious and unmoored. As they come to terms with the loss of a figure who embodied Britain, they are unsure of their nation's identity, its economic and social well-being, or even its role in the world.

To some, it almost seems as if London Bridge is down.

Such trauma was not wholly unexpected: Elizabeth reigned for 70 years, making her the only monarch that most Britons ever knew.

Yet the anxiety runs even deeper, scholars and commentators say, a reflection not only of the queen's long shadow but also of the unsettled country she leaves behind.

From Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic to the serial scandals that recently drove Prime Minister Boris Johnson from office, the end of the second Elizabeth age has been a time of unending turmoil for Britain.

In just the two months since Johnson announced he would step down, inflation has soared, a recession looms and household energy bills have almost doubled.

Almost lost in the worldwide outpouring after the queen's death was that the new prime minister, Liz Truss, three days on the job, rolled out an emergency plan to cap energy prices at a likely cost of more than US$100 billion (S$140 billion).

"It all feeds into a sense of uncertainty and insecurity, which was already there because of Brexit and then Covid-19 and now a new, very inexperienced prime minister," said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford. The queen, he said, was the rock, "and then the rock is removed".

Not just the rock, but the rhythm of British daily life: Her image is printed on pound notes and postage stamps, her royal monogram - E.R. for Elizabeth Regina - emblazoned on flags and red postal boxes across the land.

At the formal proclamation of her son, Charles, as king on Saturday, the void left by the queen was palpable.

Britain's King Charles meets well-wishers in London on Sept 10, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Her empty throne, bearing the initials E.R., loomed before an assembly of the new monarch; his heir, Prince William; the archbishop of Canterbury; and the prime minister and her six living predecessors.

For older Britons especially, the loss is "deep and personal and almost familial", said Johnson, paying tribute to the queen in Parliament on Friday, four days after she accepted his resignation in one of her last acts.

"Perhaps it is partly that she has always been there, a changeless human reference point in British life," he said. "The person who, all the surveys say, appears most often in our dreams. So unvarying in her polestar radiance that we have perhaps been lulled into thinking that she might be in some way eternal."

Beyond the queen's constancy, Johnson and others said, was her immense global stature. She was a living link to World War II, after which Winston Churchill helped draw the map of the postwar world, seated around a Yalta conference table with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin.

Johnson and Truss have harked back to that role with their robust support for Ukraine. But Britain these days is less a major power at the centre of global decision-making than a midsize one cheering from the sidelines. It is fitting that the last Briton to receive a state funeral - until the queen's, set for Sept 19 at Westminster Abbey - was Churchill in 1965.

"My own personal reflection is that there is probably never going to be an occasion in which another British figure is so mourned globally," Garton Ash of Oxford said. "It is in some way a last moment of British greatness."

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For all of the trappings of power, the queen projected influence not through political or military muscle but through an abiding duty to country. Her wartime service and her dignified stewardship contrasted with Britain's often-fractious politics, not to mention the foreign strongmen she sometimes had to entertain.

She was, some said, a pioneer in the exercise of what later became known as "soft power".

"I cannot lead you into battle," the queen said in 1957. "I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands, and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations."

In the parks and squares around Buckingham Palace, where crowds gathered on Saturday, people spoke of her loss in political and personal terms. "She meant reliability and stability," said Kate Nattrass, 59, a health recruiter from Christchurch, New Zealand, which is a member of the Commonwealth.

Mourners embrace as they look at flowers put down by well-wishers outside of Buckingham Palace on Sept 10, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

But the queen did so at the cost of great personal sacrifice. "In many ways, she was a woman robbed of being able to be herself," Nattrass said. "She probably missed a lot of her own family because of that."

Callum Taylor, 27, an actor from the north-west English town of Preston, travelled to London to leave yellow roses at the palace gates. He said he had heard yellow was one of Elizabeth's favorite colours. Taylor admitted he was not sure of his information but added, "I think we all felt we knew her." NYTIMES

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