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Elizabeth II dies: How to lose an empire without losing your composure | International

No country has changed as much as the UK over the last 100 years. What was the greatest empire and a great industrial power is today something else, difficult to define, whose structure has been articulated over time around the personality of a supposedly impersonal woman. Isabel Alejandra María Windsor attended the scrapping of her inheritance without any fuss and, somehow, knew how to fill the void with her presence. Without Elizabeth II, the British monarchy will be something else. So will the world.

On June 2, 1953, when she was crowned, the cards were already on the table. India’s independence had been bloody and messy. The British withdrawal from Palestine in 1948 opened a conflict that remains unresolved today. For the first time in centuries, the new monarch was not presented with the “imperial crown” at the coronation ceremony, but with the vague title of “head of the Commonwealth”. No one quite knew what the Commonwealth consisted of. Only one person was able to discover it and make sense of that international ghost. That person, Elizabeth II, is gone.

The list of amputations to which the old empire was subjected after the coronation is impressive. Ghana and the Federation of Malaya (Malaysia) gained independence in 1957. Nigeria in 1960. Sierra Leone and Tanganyika (Tanzania) in 1961. Uganda, Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago in 1962. Kenya and Zanzibar in 1963. Malta, in 1964. Gambia, in 1965. Bechuanaland (Botswana), Basutoland (Lesotho) and Barbados, in 1966. Mauritius, in 1968. Seychelles, in 1976. Hong Kong, in 1997. But something remained after so many farewells: a rare fidelity to Elizabeth II. Not towards the monarchy, much less towards the United Kingdom, but towards her.

Philip of Edinburgh said his wife was not practicing as a queen in the Commonwealth, but as a “psychotherapist”. The definition is accurate. Elizabeth II had to manage a network of new republics and local monarchies, abundant in brutal dictators and civil wars. She even welcomed countries, like Mozambique or Rwanda, that had never belonged to the British empire. Its leaders went out of their way for a few minutes of private meeting with a queen who, in theory, could only listen to them. It was the fascination with the aura of Elizabeth II, yes. But it was also something else: in practice, Elizabeth II did more than just listen.

It is convenient to undo a mistake: within a narrow margin, sometimes jumping the limits, resorting to a unique paradiplomatic power in the world, the queen defended her political ideas. They were more progressive than might be supposed.

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There was never a British Constitution that served as a guide and refuge for Elizabeth II, nor was there an instruction manual to act as the recipient of what was defined as “17 kingdoms united in one person”. The complications of her father, George VI, in 1939, when he was at war with Germany as monarch of the United Kingdom, but on good terms with Germany as Canadian monarch, were nothing compared to what she had to face.

South African President Nelson Mandela escorts Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on a carriage in London on the first day of the South African president's official visit to the United Kingdom on July 9, 1996.
South African President Nelson Mandela escorts Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II on a carriage in London on the first day of the South African president’s official visit to the United Kingdom on July 9, 1996.EPA

There are numerous examples. In 1956, the rookie queen was against the invasion of the Suez Canal and reluctantly signed the mobilization of troops (she did it in a block), simply because thanks to her network of Commonwealth contacts and her personal friendship with the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, was better informed than the pitiful Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Elizabeth II had to swallow the fiasco of withdrawal.

In the following decade, the queen joined forces with Prime Minister Harold Wilson to prevent the independence of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) while the racist regime remained. Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, did not fail to proclaim his love and loyalty to Elizabeth II; she answered him again and again with signs of contempt. The apartheid of Rhodesia ended up falling.

By then, Dermot Morrah, a celebrated editorialist for The Times and writer of royal speeches, had already ruled that the British monarchy was sustained almost exclusively by the personal prestige of Elizabeth II. She, with her Commonwealth, and the financial City (which represents 12% of the British economy, as much as tourism in Spain) made up the so-called “spiritual empire”: a sphere of influence of planetary scope.

It is often said that relations between Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher were very cold. In reality, they maintained a continuous political confrontation. Because Isabel II did politics. When she wore the dress of a British queen, it was the Government of London that put her words in her mouth. When she became head of the Commonwealth, it was she who spoke. Since the late 1980s, the queen has used every meeting of her “international club” to warn of the risks of growing economic and social inequalities in the world; To Thatcher that sounded like socialism.

The worst clash between the two women came in 1986. The Commonwealth demanded sanctions against the racist regime in South Africa. Thatcher adamantly refused. For her, the only important thing was economic relations with South Africa. Regardless of that, the iron lady considered Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the black majority, to be a terrorist. While Thatcher ignored Mandela, Elizabeth II maintained indirect contacts with him.

Ten years later, in 1996, already without Thatcher, Elizabeth II gave Mandela a treat of honor on his first official trip to London: she put him up at Buckingham Palace (although you never know if staying at the royal palace is a reward). ugliest and saddest in Europe), accompanied him everywhere and, above all, allowed the South African president to call her “Lizzie”.

Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Felipe de Edinburgh, together with the then US president, Ronald Reagan, and the first lady, Nancy Reagan, in March 1983 at Rancho del Cielo, north of Santa Bárbara (USA).
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Felipe de Edinburgh, together with the then US president, Ronald Reagan, and the first lady, Nancy Reagan, in March 1983 at Rancho del Cielo, north of Santa Bárbara (USA). Anwar Hussein (Getty Images)

Another front of permanent political tension between the monarchy and the Government opened in 1961, when Downing Street decided to apply for admission to the European institutions. The main leaders of the Commonwealth complained to Elizabeth II, because that left the preferential treaties they had with the United Kingdom a dead letter. French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed British accession and deferred the issue until the next decade. But a good part of Her Majesty’s subjects always opposed what was called the Common Market. They feared losing their independence, represented precisely by the queen. Elizabeth II, like her successive governments, was forced to strike a balance.

What did Isabel II think about the European construction? She could never say anything in public. Maybe she didn’t say it in private either. She allowed herself, however, to launch a coded message. In 2017, shortly after the referendum that gave the green light to Brexit, she attended the opening of Parliament wearing a hat that she had never worn before: it was blue with yellow stars, just like the flag of Europe.

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