Queen Elizabeth II formally became the oldest person to ever serve as monarch of the United Kingdom today. Until now, Queen Victoria held the record at 81 years and 243 days, but the present Queen is now officially one day older.
All commemorations of the Queen’s achievement beg an uncomfortable, underlying question. How much longer until she dies? It’s a very morbid matter to ponder, but the monarchy is by definition a rather morbid institution, and death is a routine part of its proper functioning. The Queen’s eventual death will undoubtedly trigger enormous constitutional controversy—and possibly even crisis—across the Commonwealth, and will likely usher in an intense wave of debate on the future of the Crown. It’s therefore a perfectly reasonable eventuality to speculate about, and so speculate I will.
It’s worth noting that of course I do not eagerly anticipate the Queen’s death, and I don’t bear the Queen any personal ill will. On the contrary, I think any reasonable person, be they republican or monarchist, liberal or conservative, will readily acknowledge that Elizabeth II is one of the great figures of the 20th Century, and an enormously important symbolic persona of our era, even if her political relevance was limited and flawed. I also think, however, that history will almost certainly record her as the “last great monarch” of England, and a fitting bookend to Britain’s long era of Empire and monarchy. The Queen’s death will thus not be an orderly, formulaic, or unspectacular affair, the way the deaths of her father and grandfather were. It will instead be an enormously emotional episode, in which it will be brazenly obvious to all that a definitive era has concluded, and we are now entering an uncertain twilight period.
The irony of the Queen’s success as a constitutional monarch is that she has actually done a disservice to the long-term survival of the Crown by so successfully centralizing the entire institution in her own person. All of the royal poise, dignity, formality, and aloofness that monarchists love so much and claim are inherent values of the monarchy are really just the values that Elizabeth the individual have brought to the job. They will likely die with her. The Queen’s family, as we all know, is a highly dysfunctional and decidedly undignified brood, and in the modern era embarrassed monarchists have largely cut them out of the equation in detailing “what the monarchy is,” in favor of exclusively focusing on the elderly and delightfully out-of-touch Queen. But as Elizabeth ages, it is Charles, Camilla, and the two playboy princes who are poised to inherit the Queen’s world, and will be thoroughly incapable of sustaining it, either on a personal or institutional level. The present Queen does not give interviews, has kept her political views largely hidden, and enjoys the admiration of a deferential media that does not dare gossip about her eccentricities, intellect, or sex life. This cannot be said of any of her successors.
Once this gang takes over, the post-Elizabeth monarchy will thus become a mundane, uninspiring, born-and-bred creature of Tabloid culture, headed by people who are depressingly ordinary and unsettlingly human. King Charles or William or whoever will be constantly compared unfavorably to the Last Great Queen, and everyone will be unhappy and worse off. The Commonwealth realms will wonder why we are bothering to enshrine a boring British man as our Head of State, and the Brits will ask the same. The late 2010’s or 20’s could see the Crown die an undignified death at its lowest moment.
One has to resist the urge for schadenfreude. It would be nice for all involved if there could be some sort of negotiated, polite end to the British monarchy in both Britain and the Commonwealth, in which the institution could be calmly dissoveled upon the passing (or, ideally, abdication) of Elizabeth II. It could be an agreement reached by negotiation and consensus, preserving the pride of all affected parties.
She’s been around for 81 years, but Queen Elizabeth show can’t continue forever. The sooner we prepare for the post-Elizabeth period, the sooner we can ensure that the greatness of the woman is honored by a dignified conclusion to her era, rather than an arduous and muddled mess.