The queen is gone. Can Britain’s untested leaders confront its problems?

On this day 25 years ago, Britain was in mourning. The nation had just said goodbye to Princess Diana, the “people’s princess,” as then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had called her in the hours after she died in a car crash in Paris. Diana was buried on a day of resplendent beauty. More than a million people lined the streets and parks of London to watch her funeral procession pass by. The pain of her death was still evident days later.

 

Queen Elizabeth II was at Balmoral, her summer home in Scotland, when Diana died. She remained there the day after and the day after that and the day after that. As mourners’ flowers piled up at the gates of Buckingham Palace and a country famous for its stiff upper lip dissolved in tears, the seeming indifference of a secluded royal family was symbolized by a bare flagpole atop the palace, dictated by protocol but incomprehensible to a grieving public.

 

The people had taken Diana’s side during her divorce from then-Prince Charles, now King Charles III, and the breach with the royal family. Elizabeth’s decision to remain in Scotland as the country mourned was taken as a further royal snub. The British tabloids amplified the public’s disquiet with screaming headlines: “Where is Our Queen? Where is Her Flag?” said the Sun. “Show Us You Care,” said the Express. “Your People Are Suffering,” said the Mirror. “Speak To Us, Ma’am.”

 

Today Britain is again in mourning, now marking the queen’s death at 96, and after a 70-year reign that likely will never be matched by any monarch anywhere. Tributes have come in from around the world. Today the flowers are piled up at Buckingham Palace in memory of Elizabeth.

 

This outpouring of affection might have seemed unlikely a quarter century ago, when the queen was at a low point and questions about the durability — even necessity — of the monarchy itself were stirring in public conversation. Today, at a time of distrust of most institutions in Britain, the monarchy is held in high regard, thanks to her alone.

 

The queen demonstrated over her 70 years this ability to adapt and modernize. As Blair said in an interview Friday on CNN, once the queen realized her missteps during Diana, she spoke to the people “from the heart and in a way that brought people back to her.”

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Elizabeth’s death comes at a time of enormous challenge for the United Kingdom, domestically and internationally. Its political leadership faces economic problems at home, questions about its role in the world, tensions in its relations with Europe and longer-term issues about the future of the Commonwealth. A divided Britain confronts its future without the single unifying presence that the queen was able to provide.

 

“Stability” and “continuity” are two words threaded through much that has been written and said since the news flashed across the world on Thursday that the queen had died. She had lived long enough to enjoy the celebrations this June marking her Platinum Jubilee year. She lived 17 months beyond the death of her beloved husband and partner, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Two days before her death, she had welcomed Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, the 15th to head the British government during her long reign. (The first was Winston Churchill.) She carried out her duties to the very end.

 

If she was a symbol of continuity, the queen could not bring stability to her country. The monarch’s role is ceremonial. Politicians are left to deal with the problems — and they have been manifold in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign. Just in the past half dozen years, Britain’s government has been headed by four different prime ministers, with Boris Johnson having to resign earlier this summer amid multiple scandals.

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The queen offered a counterpoint to the chaos and division around her. She was as steady as she was reserved. What she really thought, about the prime ministers, about her own family’s past and recent turmoil, about the direction of politics and policy, she did not disclose. She became a symbol of eras passing, as Britain evolved from a country that once, controversially, commanded a colonial empire to a more humbled island nation whose role in the world gradually contracted. At the end, she became an object of respect for the devotion to duty that she offered, a model of leadership in a messy world.

 

As she leaves, Britain is perched somewhere between going it alone and working with others. The United Kingdom is a central participant in the NATO alliance aiding Ukraine in its war with Russia, but it is no longer a part of the European Union, having decided in a controversial vote in the summer of 2016 to leave that alliance, to declare its own economic independence as the advocates argued. The Brexit vote has kept Britain divided at home while generating lasting conflict with the E.U.

 

The turnover at 10 Downing Street underscores how damaging that decision has been to the stability of the country. David Cameron, the prime minister who called for the Brexit referendum, stepped down after the vote went against what he had hoped. His successor, Theresa May, struggled to implement the breakup and eventually resigned, with her own party divided. The flamboyant Johnson swept in promising to finalize the split with the E.U., but troublesome issues over the future of Northern Ireland have defied solution (and have caused tensions with President Biden, a proud Irish American).

 

The loose ends of Brexit are just one of the issues that confront the new prime minister, and not necessarily even the most pressing. Britain’s economy faces enormous problems, with projections that the country’s energy crisis next winter could push inflation rates to close to 20 percent. Slow growth and lagging productivity have plagued Britain for more than a decade.

 

Truss arrives in office untested. To win the leadership fight in the Conservative Party that vaulted her into the prime minister’s office, she curried favor with a narrow and very conservative constituency that is far from representative of the nation. She was chosen on the votes of fewer than 100,000 people in a nation of 67 million and without a majority of Conservative members of Parliament. Some of the promises she made to win those votes have been mocked by experts. She comes to office with low levels of popularity and no real mandate.

 

Truss’s party, meanwhile, is exhausted. The Tories have been in power for 12 years; their hold on power aided in part by a Labour Party whose leadership through many of those years proved anathema to the voters when general elections came around. Her new cabinet is diverse, but the collective team has drawn few words of praise. The Economist magazine said of one of her ministers, Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, that he “should be put in a museum, not in charge of anything.”

 

Beyond the threats of rising costs and a winter of discontent, Truss faces problems in the National Health Service, the danger of labor unrest and strike. She will govern at a time of distrust in government, thanks in part to Johnson’s shambolic leadership. Now, at a time when Truss wants to show her mettle and gain public confidence, people are preoccupied with the death of the queen, the formal ceremonies to mark her passing and the arrival of a new king, one with his own need to gain public confidence.

 

Charles has long prepared to succeed his mother and is well schooled in the responsibilities that go with being head of state. At 73, he knows the world and many of its leaders. He has made clear some of his policy preferences, especially in combating climate change, but he will be constrained as a constitutional monarch from becoming part of the public debate on that and other issues. He begins with the goodwill of the British people, but that is far different than the trust and affection the queen earned through the decades. It will take time for him to establish that connection to the British people and, importantly, to the peoples of Britain’s colonial past to sustain the Commonwealth.

 

The United Kingdom must now start fresh. However prepared people thought they were for the passing of a 96-year-old monarch, the reality is something different. As the ceremonial events continue over the coming days, as the queen is remembered, the questions about what comes next will shadow the country’s new leadership.

 

Dan Balz

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