Queen Elizabeth II died Thursday afternoon at the age of 96 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. She was on the British throne for 70 years, making her Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
“Busy” is perhaps the keyword here. While the Queen’s official powers in a constitutional monarchy were greater than many might believe – under the letter of English law the monarch can appoint or dismiss the Prime Minister, for example – in practice they have never been, nor would they be, exercised to their fullest extent ever been.
The Queen’s position, if not the continued existence of the British monarchy, depended on remaining outside the real political sphere. The British government at the time ruled from Westminster on her behalf, but it is considered unconstitutional for the monarch to vote at all.
As a result, Elizabeth spent seven decades in one of the world’s most high-profile positions…without taking direct political action. She met everyone worth meeting, traveled over a million miles and visited over 115 countries, welcomed 15 British Prime Ministers into office – all without doing anything but being her often silent royal self. In a way, that made her the biggest viewer in history.
And the history she witnessed was more than just the cumulative weight of 70 years. During those decades, the world changed like never before — sometimes for the worse, often for the better — and Queen Elizabeth II observed it all from a single seat.
The end of the empire
When her father, King George VI, died on February 6, 1952, the future queen was at a remote game viewing camp in Kenya – so remote that she didn’t learn of his death and ascension until four hours later, the fact.
Today, of course, news of the Queen’s death immediately spread across the internet – despite efforts to control the news, it soon leaked via Twitter. And Kenya is no longer a British colony like it was in 1952, but a separate country that will soon be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence.
Over the course of his reign, Britain went from more than 70 overseas territories – such as Hong Kong and Singapore in East Asia, Yemen in the Middle East and Guyana in South America – to a handful of sparsely populated islands. Even the UK itself could be doomed to dissolution, with all of Ireland a real possibility and Scotland threatening yet another vote for independence.
Britain is still a nuclear power, as it was when it was crowned in 1953, and still holds one of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. But six years after the Brexit vote, Britain’s international influence is at a low ebb; or at least it would be if it didn’t seem likely that it would fall further as the economically troubled nation braces for a cost-of-living crisis this winter.
To put it bluntly, the demise of the Empire that Elizabeth witnessed is nothing to lament about. If self-determination – the right of people to choose their own destiny in the international order – is sacrosanct, then the fact that more than 700 million people were effectively living under the rule of a foreign government at the time of Elizabeth’s coronation was a historic wrong had to be corrected.
70 years is a long time
Sitting on a throne for 70 years is witnessing a changing world. But Elizabeth’s reign was so unique because the seven decades she spent as queen were so unique.
Compare Elizabeth to another historical monarch who reigned for almost as long: King Louis XIV of France, the fabled “Sun King”. (Louis was technically longer king than Elizabeth was queen, but he spent the first eight years of his reign under one regency. I’ll leave that to royal scholars to sort out.) Between Louis’ accession to the throne in 1643 and his death in 1715, that stirred Per capita GDP in France hardly. Progress as we know it has essentially stagnated, as it has almost everywhere else in the world.
During Elizabeth’s time, however, UK GDP per capita more than tripled, part of a wave of economic growth that began in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution and really picked up momentum around the world in the post-war period. Life expectancy in Great Britain was just under 70 years in 1953 – today it is over 80 years.
And the changes were even greater during these decades in many of the developing countries that once made up the British Empire. Shortly before the Queen’s death, India – which had been under direct British rule for almost a century – overtook Britain as the fifth largest economy in the world.
Much of this advancement was the result of technological changes that Elizabeth witnessed firsthand. She was the first British monarch whose coronation was televised live, sending her first email in 1976 and her first tweet in 2014. Her first Christmas message to her subjects was broadcast on the radio – her last could be streamed on YouTube.
Britain in 1953 was a predominantly white country where women had only had full equal suffrage for 25 years. The UK is now a multi-ethnic democracy in which one of the most recent candidates for Prime Minister is Rishi Sunak, a Hindu whose parents were East African immigrants of Indian descent, and in which the eventual winner, Liz Truss, is the third female Prime Minister country is.
Homosexuality was not legalized in Britain until 1967, more than a decade into her reign. In 2018, Lord Ivar Mountbatten, a cousin of Elizabeth, became the first British royal to marry her same-sex partner.
If part of the Queen’s appeal was her sheer longevity, that longevity was all the more important as it unfolded over a period of unprecedented change. The 18th-century France that existed at the end of the reign of Louis XIV would have seemed little different to the young king more than 70 years earlier in terms of technology, economy and social mores.
The United Kingdom of 2022 – and indeed the world at large – would be unrecognizable to the 25-year-old woman who was anointed at Westminster Abbey in 1953. And the pace of change ahead for King Charles III. And its successors only seem likely to accelerate. Certainly one of those changes, at least in the UK, will be the monarchy itself. As Dylan Matthews wrote in 2015, constitutional monarchies can have real value by ensuring that a figure is drawn from politics without being in it. But that role may have died with the queen. The trappings of monarchy may be transferable to Charles, a figure all too familiar to the British public, but probably not the spirit Elizabeth embodies.
Queen Elizabeth II caused none of these changes to her reign, but she witnessed them from a uniquely privileged vantage point. And her death is a reminder of how long 70 years really are – especially these 70 years.
A version of this story was originally published in the Future Perfect Newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!