https://thehill.com/policy/international/3645532-the-memo-britain-grapples-with-its-future-after-queen-elizabeths-death/

The funeral of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will take place on Monday, the culmination of a 10-day period of mourning for a monarch who was on the throne for 70 years.

Questions about the United Kingdom’s identity — and the future of the monarchy itself — are rushing in to fill the void left by Elizabeth’s death.

“The Queen played a huge role in masking the underlying divisions in the kingdom by being such a point of consensus — it was almost misleading,” said Jonathan Freedland, a prominent British commentator and a columnist for the liberal-leaning Guardian newspaper. 

“Some of those divisions will be revealed in the reign of her son.”

Charles III comes to the throne at a time of dramatic flux.

The U.K. is still grappling with the effects of its 2016 ‘Brexit’ vote to leave the European Union. Its fourth prime minister in less than seven years, Liz Truss of the Conservative Party, has only just taken office. Inflation is soaring, particularly in relation to energy costs, and the worst may be yet to come — some experts have forecast that inflation could peak at over 20 percent.

Direct political questions like inflation are not within the purview of the British monarch in any real sense. But the future of the United Kingdom itself is a different story.

The movement for Scottish independence was not quelled by defeat in a 2014 referendum. 

Another referendum has been proposed for next year, and the main political advocate of independence, the Scottish National Party, is the dominant force north of the border.

Across the Irish Sea, Sinn Féin became the biggest party in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly in elections earlier this year.

During the three-decade conflict known as The Troubles, Sinn Féin served as the political wing of the guerrilla Irish Republican Army (IRA). The party’s ultimate goal is the dissolution of Northern Ireland and its absorption into a United Ireland.

The Irish peace process, centered on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, has eased some of the old enmities. Obituaries of Queen Elizabeth have noted her 2011 visit to a Dublin memorial to Irish freedom fighters and her public handshake the following year with Martin McGuinness, a one-time IRA commander turned Sinn Féin politician.

Still, even the new king noted Sinn Féin’s growth during a visit to Belfast and nearby areas this week. He did not have to spell out what that could mean for his nation.

James Boys, a British-born visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, noted that Charles had made “a deliberate point” of touring the constituent parts of the United Kingdom in the days since his mother’s death, shoring up support.

But further afield, Boys noted that some “ruptures” to the Commonwealth — a loose alliance of the U.K. plus 55 nations that were, overwhelmingly, once British colonies — appear likely.

A far smaller group of nations — 14, not including the U.K. itself – retain the British monarch as their head of state. 

But even that group may not hold together for much longer.

The republican movement in Australia appears to have gained some steam in recent years. Last year, Barbados opted to get rid of the Queen as head of state and become a republic. Its decision set off renewed soul-searching in other Caribbean nations.

It’s a far cry from the height of the British Empire in the early 20th century, when London ruled roughly one-quarter of the planet’s land mass. It was the largest empire the world has ever seen. The sun, it was said, never set on the British Empire.

Britain’s colonial history is getting exposed to more rigorous examination, in part thanks to the reverberations of the Black Lives Matter movement across the Atlantic. The story looks very different from Bombay or Bridgetown than from the balcony at Buckingham Palace.  

“For many of us from the ‘colonies,’ the death of Elizabeth II signifies in very particular ways that she was the symbol of an empire built on genocide, slavery, violence, extraction, and brutality, the legacies of which continue in our present day,” Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a professor of Black diasporic art at Princeton University, told Time magazine this week. “She was not only a symbol, she was complicit in this empire.”

Those views were coming to the fore prior to Elizabeth’s death — “The British Empire was much worse than you realize” was the headline of a New Yorker story in March — but they could gain even more momentum after her death.

Charles faces more personal challenges, too. He has never been as popular as his mother, a difference that can be attributed in part to the legacy of his troubled marriage to the late Princess Diana.

YouGov polling taken during the last year of Elizabeth’s life indicated that 81 percent of Britons held a favorable view of her, while just 56 percent felt the same way about Charles. Charles’s elder son, Prince William, was much more popular, with 77 percent of Britons expressing a positive view of him.

Still, the monarchy, much like Britain itself, isn’t to be underestimated. 

Some commentators, like Boys, argue that it is too easy to cast Elizabeth’s death as another landmark on the road to decline.

“If you want to look at Britain and see a nation in decline, you’ll see that. But if you don’t want to see that, you will think she was a woman in her 90s, the handover has gone seamlessly, and Charles and William seem a pretty safe pair of hands,” he said.

Freedland, the author of a 1998 book arguing that Britain should become a republic, expresses a very different view. He doesn’t think a downfall of the monarchy is imminent — but he does see a new possibility of change.

“When I made this case 25 years ago for a republic, it dawned on me pretty quickly that the big obstacle in the way of it was her, personally,” he said of Elizabeth. “People couldn’t even contemplate the question because they liked her too much.”

Now, he added, “I just think the weather around this question has changed. The atmospherics are very different.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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