Gustav Bourdon, Contributing Writer
At 18:41 London time, the official Twitter account of the United Kingdom’s Royal Family put out a simple message. It read, “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The King and the Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.” With that message, the Royal Family announced to the public that the nearly 71-year reign of Elizabeth Windsor II, Queen of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth, had come to an end.
The immediate bureaucratic effects of this, however, are limited compared to if, for example, President Joe Biden or Prime Minister Liz Truss had experienced a similar series of events. Although Queen Elizabeth II was technically the United Kingdom’s head of state, her practical powers were almost non-existent: While the British government was technically Her Majesty’s Government, this phrasing is now merely symbolic.
However, Queen Elizabeth II had served as an excellent symbol over her 71-year reign, managing to shift with the times over those years while also managing to seem engaged yet detached. Most people can remember an anecdote of her staying in England during the Second World War to train as a medic, or her taking the crown prince of Saudi Arabia off-road driving at a time when women weren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and, “the Crown Prince implor[ing] the Queen to slow down,” yet her scandals have been remarkably few.
With her death, the United Kingdom and the Royal Family has lost an incredibly powerful symbol, and while the United Kingdom will survive, the Royal Family, at least in its current state and importance, will not.
Queen Elizabeth served as an anchor for the royals, her symbolic power keeping them in the spotlight. With that anchoring lost, the Royal Family is cast adrift. King Charles III isn’t the wry, perfectly neutral, symbol his mother was: He’s directly involved himself in issues such as climate change and sustainability, and is noticeably less detached than Queen Elizabeth. While this might be a step towards pushing issues he cares about forward, it also is a step back from Queen Elizabeth’s personable neutrality. Instead of being the eye of a political hurricane, the crown becomes one more voice in the whirlwind.
In addition, this forms an intriguing contradiction of the crown’s theoretical powers in comparison to the Crown serving as a symbolic cog in the system. When Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to a piece of legislation approved by Parliament, the public did not know her opinion of it, if she whole-heartedly agreed with it or actually hated it, and only approved it because that was her only practical option.
With King Charles if, for example, the Conservative majority in Parliament voted in a bill that contradicted his public environmentalism, that would become fodder for headlines, and underline both how useless the crown is and how powerful it could theoretically be, eroding the perception of the crown as an institution.
At the same time, it would be impractical to turn the crown into simply a marble statue, dispassionately looking down on the United Kingdom from Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth was broadly admired, but her reign was not perfect: After the death of Princess Diana, the Royal Family, entrapped in protocol, was accused of seeming cold, and public perception of the crown wavered. Queen Elizabeth managed to actively balance both of these two extremes, and became, in the process, an ideal.
Of course, it is possible that this is pessimism, and that King Charles III will manage to find his own tightrope walk to balance on, holding the Royal Family up for another generation, or that a future King William will manage to develop that same balance that his grandmother had. However, that will not be easy for either of them, or for any future Queens or Kings. The fact that Queen Elizabeth II managed to almost perfectly balance being detached and being engaged, slipping so few times in the process, is remarkable, and any future royals have nothing but a perfect symbol to be compared to.