The Britain that mourns the end of the longest reign in history is a different country from the one in which a 26-year-old Elizabeth was crowned. So the Queen was mourned this week with condolences in churches and synagogues, temples, mosques and gurdwaras, reflecting how a 99 per cent white British and strongly Christian society is now a multi-ethnic society of many faiths and none.
Many have noted how this 96-year-old woman, her image on every coin, was the one constant in a world of change. Britain’s deep sense of tradition, exemplified in the rituals of royalty, can make this a nostalgic country. This became, too, a kinder, better society for so many over this reign – profoundly so for gay people able to be open about who they loved, or women who sought to pursue a career. Few ethnic minority Britons see the last seven decades as a retreat from past glories. Social changes that may feel unsettlingly fast to some could often feel hard won, slow and incomplete to others.
A ceremonial monarchy lacks the power to determine those political outcomes. Yet the first generation of Asian and black migrants respected the Queen. She was even seen, in modern parlance, as something of a symbolic “ally”. She came to represent less the fading story of the empire into which she was born and more its evolution into the Commonwealth.
There was no more prominent champion of the post-imperial links – ‘we are here because you were there’ – that explained the British identity of black and Asian citizens, whose very presence was still so fiercely contested in the first decades of her reign. She could upset the right people. Enoch Powell angrily objected to the images of her meeting Indira Gandhi in her 1983 Christmas broadcast, arguing that excessive sympathy for Commonwealth citizens abroad and “vociferous newcomers” at home would prove “pregnant with peril” for the place of the Crown in the affections of the public.
It was another false Powellite prophecy – for the monarchy was in the hearts of the new British too. For British Jews, with the horrors of the Holocaust within living memory, and Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin, the stability of Britain was more than symbolic. State pageantry gradually embraced Britain’s growing diversity, as the honours lists reflected ethnic minority service and contribution: not just Mo Farah’s multiple Olympic gold medals, but everyday service in health, business, sport and community connections. Gurvinder Sandher, awarded an MBE in the Jubilee honours, says Sikhs saw in the Queen an exemplar of the spirit of “sewa”, selfless service, to emulate.
“The Queen is Dead! Long Live the King!” There is a brutal pace to the proclamation of allegiance to a new King before the late Queen is even laid in state.
King Charles acknowledges the new constraints on his voice. As Head of State, he can no longer remind us that he thinks deportations to Rwanda are unconscionable, beyond private advice to his prime minister. But he can legitimately champion New Britons pledging allegiance to King and Country in citizenship ceremonies, and celebrate the many British welcomers helping Ukrainians, Afghans and Hong Kongers to settle in. His call on William and Catherine, now Prince and Princes of Wales, to elevate the voices of the marginalised may generate expectations among Asian and black Britain of as proactive engagement an engagement with British diversity at home in future, as there was previously abroad in the Commonwealth.
A new Britain mourns together now. Though we are a more anxious, fragmented society than any of us want, these national moments remind us how much we share.
Our elected politicians often ask us to pick a side – between parties in elections, or in referendums too. The Crown can be a public institution which, rising above the political fray, seeks to defuse social conflict too, by promoting connections that bridge our divides.
Next year’s Coronation could offer a profoundly important moment for the new King, not just to voice that mission to connect, but to invite and challenge us, as citizens, to play our own part in it too.
That moment of national renewal can build on seven decades of the Queen’s service. It can help us to join the dots, since we begin a new chapter, three-quarters of a century into the story of this modern Britain, symbolised by the 75th anniversary of both the arrival of the Windrush and the founding of the NHS.
The monarchy’s constitutional role is unchanged, but its social purpose can evolve. The Queen’s longevity meant she could symbolise stability simply by always being there. To continue to provide the ties that bind this diverse yet sometimes divided society, the new King could make his a more proactive, bridging Monarchy. “Only connect” could be the Coronation theme that modern Britain needs.