The Queen is dead. Long live the King. How strange this process, how archaic and theatrical, moving and melancholy, mixing the worlds of King Arthur and Netflix. We are often told that it is this connection to the deep past that gives monarchy its meaning. But as the world prepares for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London tomorrow, the unchanging continuity is less significant than the subtle evolution of the nation that it conceals.
In burying its longest-serving monarch, Britain buries a part of itself too: the country it once was but is no more. And this is how it should be. When the Queen’s father, King George VI, was laid to rest in 1952, Britain said goodbye to its last imperial monarch, the man who had been the emperor of India. With his death—followed 13 years later by Winston Churchill’s—passed the imperial age. Elizabeth’s inheritance in 1952—despite much of the U.S. commentary over the past week—was the first postimperial crown in British history. Elizabeth was the monarch not of an empire but of a loose, global commonwealth sitting awkwardly in a distinctly American imperium. And yet hers was still a global role. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen, was a totem of this global Britain, erected at the very moment that the tide of British power began its long turn toward the shore.
Tomorrow’s ceremony in London, then, marks not just the end of a reign, but the passing of an age. It is hard to imagine that London will ever witness such a gathering of world leaders again. In 1952, after all, President Harry Truman did not feel it necessary to turn up at King George VI’s funeral, despite the connection forged during the Second World War. Today, the American Caesar himself will arrive, alongside the emperor of Japan, the president of France, the king of Spain, and countless other royals, dignitaries, and prime ministers. Like the Japanese maple tree that filled Clive James’s imagination at the end of his life, the funeral of Elizabeth offers “a vision of a world that shone so brightly at the last, and then was gone.”
The Queen leaves behind an altogether different crown than the one that she inherited: not global, but national. Charles is the head of the Commonwealth, like his mother, and the King of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as well as the United Kingdom. But in 1952, when Elizabeth was crowned, the Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies, felt no shame declaring himself British. That world has gone.
Some will see only shame in this shrinking of Britain’s horizons. To them, perhaps, Charles is an embarrassing emblem of Brexit Britain, of a country that has turned in on itself—no longer the country of Elizabeth, but that of a drab new provincialism made all the more absurd by Britain’s apparent desire to cling to lost grandeur. I’m afraid I see almost the exact opposite.
Far from resisting such royal parochialism, Britain should embrace Charles as the emblem of its new normal age. Very few people in the world know the names of the Dutch, Danish, or Norwegian monarchs, but their citizens are much more prosperous and their kingdoms more settled. If Charles joins them in comparative anonymity, that should be celebrated.
In 1962, a decade into Britain’s second Elizabethan age, the American grandee Dean Acheson caused real hurt and anger in London by declaring that Britain had lost an empire but had yet to find a role. The entire reign of Elizabeth was filled with her chief ministers searching for the answer to this challenge. But with her passing, Britain can cease its search. Not playing a central role in the great game is a perfectly noble aspiration, a liberating opportunity—and one that King Charles is well suited to symbolize.
There is a poignant image of the young Queen Elizabeth arriving home from Kenya following the sudden death of her father in 1952, of the stiff, somber backs of Britain’s greatest generation of leaders waiting on the tarmac at Heathrow to greet their new sovereign. From right to left, we see Winston Churchill, the Labour leader Clement Attlee, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, each an ardent monarchist committed to maintaining Britain’s power and influence in the world. By 1956, none was in power. Harold Macmillan was prime minister following Britain’s humiliation at Suez, the lion’s last roar.
Macmillan was the first of Britain’s prime ministers who concluded that the answer to Acheson’s famous question was Europe. If Britain could only force its way into the grand new federal project under way on the continent, it would be able to protect its global influence. From the very beginning, then, joining Europe was motivated not by some Damascene realization that decline was inevitable—an acceptance of postimperial reality—but by the belief that such decline could be averted. It was the same belief that led Charles de Gaulle to block British entry, for he, too, saw Europe as the means to protect national grandeur. If Europe has been the means for any country’s resurrection, though, that country is Germany, not Britain or France.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Europe was seen as the answer to Britain’s problems, the spur for economic reform and the solution to its lost role in the world. Every prime minister who followed Macmillan shared that conclusion—until Boris Johnson. Each placed the maintenance of British influence at the center of their foreign policy, just as Churchill, Attlee, and Eden had. Even today, Liz Truss’s government, like Johnson’s, promises to create a new Global Britain.
Brexit, like Queen Elizabeth, is often explained away as an artifact of latent British imperialism. While there are no doubt some Brexiteers who yearn for a lost age of British greatness, Brexit is far less an expression of imperial nostalgia than a reflection of the desire not to have a global role: to return to the hobbit hole and be left alone to conserve the Shire. It was those who favored Britain remaining in Europe who feared the loss of British prestige, power, and influence on the continent, and who spoke of disappointing the Americans and the country finding itself isolated.
“This was Frodo and Sam’s own country,” wrote J. R. R. Tolkien in the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings. “And they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.” He was talking about his own feelings, but also the deep feeling of old England.
In Tolkien’s epic, the Shire had been monstrously transformed while the hobbits were away on their adventure. “The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds,” Tolkien wrote. “And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.”
This sort of localism is, I think, far closer to the animating impulse of Brexit than a longing for a return to global power is. It is the impulse that saw Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, opposed to any and all British interventions abroad and committed to rebuilding the Britain that briefly existed in his postwar youth, come close to power in 2017. It is the impulse behind the desire to “take back control” in order to spend less money on the European Union and more on the national health service. It is the desire to conserve what exists at home, not the desire to conserve British power abroad.
Today, regardless of the rights and wrongs of Brexit, the instinct to return to the Shire seems entirely reasonable. Britain, like the Shire, has no shortage of problems requiring repair. Much of the country is poor by European standards. The nation itself seems to have lost the sense of collective identity required for any country to hold together for very long, and breakaway nationalists govern in two parts of the kingdom.
Returning to the hobbit hole does not mean that Britain must stop caring about the world beyond the Shire. It can carry on arming and training Ukrainians, using its voice at the United Nations Security Council and NATO. But it does mean making decisions free from the incessant desire to protect influence.
“When things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them,” Frodo declares after deciding that he must leave the Shire. Perhaps the same is true with Elizabeth.
In many respects Charles is remarkably well suited to the role of Hobbit King that now lies open to him. Like George III, the man who famously lost America and embraced his image as “Farmer George,” there is something of the bluff country squire to Charles. He is far more interested in the benefits of traditional English hedgerows than the great, global glory of Britain. His orientation seems more national than international.
Today, Charles is more obviously the inheritor of British Tolkienism than of his mother’s Elizabethan globalism. Like Tolkien, Charles’s conservationism is both romantic and confounding, so Tory in its instinct that it ends up having far more in common with modern left-wing environmentalism than the free-market ideology of today’s right. The growth-at-all-costs Liz Truss yearns for more tall chimneys, not fewer.
In Charles’s first few days on the job, he gave an indication of the national role he clearly feels he must embody by visiting England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The very fact that Charles’s first act was to visit each of the four home nations of his kingdom is an indication of that kingdom’s fragility. Even in his speeches, when he talks of his “realms” abroad, he is speaking not as a monarch who is equally Australian, but as one who is primarily British.
Ultimately, it will not be Charles who defines his age. His crown sits atop a nation constantly being built and rebuilt by others. Britain’s voters and leaders will decide what sort of country Britain wants to be. Does it wish to be global, European, or national? Perhaps a bit of each. Does it wish to be British, though, or English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish? With the passing of the age of Elizabeth, Britain seems unclear as to the answer.
Should we find ourselves back here in 20 years, burying Charles, the age that takes his name will not be judged in reference to his reputation in the world or the number of presidents who turn up to pay their respects. Whether or not Australia has become a republic will be largely irrelevant. If the kingdom itself remains united, the Shire settled and prosperous, and the hedgerows well tended, the Caroline age will be judged a success.
For one more day, London is the center of the world; then Britain should embrace the beauty of its autumn days.
The Queen of the World is dead; long live the Hobbit King.