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Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee could be the last huzzah for the British Commonwealth

The celebration marking her 70 years on the throne has fostered questions, grumblings and outright growls at the monarchy's power and privilege.
Image: Prince Charles, from left, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Louis, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, London on June 2, 2022.
Prince Charles, far left, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Louis, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Princess Charlotte on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London on Thursday.Alastair Grant / Pool via AP

Vancouver — “God Save the Queen/A fascist regime…/God Save the Queen/We mean it man,” British punk band the Sex Pistols riffed off the British anthem in 1977 as economic turbulence, Euro-skepticism, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-royal feeling ran high in the run-up to Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee that same year.

The Windsors weathered the storm, and the many that came after. But on the occasion of the queen’s Platinum Jubilee on Thursday, marking 70 years on the throne, the fanfare is marred by some of the same discordant notes — only now, the future of the monarchy outside Britain is less clear.

At 96, Elizabeth is the star of a fete thrown with the knowledge that this may well be the last huzzah of an empire that once spanned the centuries and stretched across the world. Its most beloved and convincing symbol is in the deep twilight of her life.

The Platinum Jubilee represents a reckoning, a pause. A moment to ask, “What’s next?”

In 2022, monarchists are singing an anthem free of irony: “God,” they exhort quite literally, “save her!”

For Americans, the British royal family is more emblematic of celebrity than majesty, more “beautiful people” than stalwart symbols of government. Princess Margaret and her husband took Hollywood by storm in the ’60s. American networks gushed over Princess Diana and superstar John Travolta cutting up the White House dance floor in 1985.  

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More recently the star power has been of the scandal-clad kind, with Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, conducting a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey. More darkly, Prince Andrew, said to be the queen’s favorite child, settled a lawsuit that touched on his ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

If anything, the possible end of global imperial rule makes for gripping entertainment in the U.S., rather than deep soul-searching. But for the 54 Commonwealth nations — 14 of which continue to regard the queen as their head of state — the Platinum Jubilee represents a reckoning, a pause. A moment to ask, “What’s next?”

After all, when the eldest daughter of King George VI ascended the throne in 1952, Britain claimed control of more than 70 overseas territories. In this millennium, that number has dwindled to just over a dozen.

In the remaining constitutional monarchies, including my own Canada, it is the crown that has the power to govern, but it passes that power to elected legislatures. That’s why every Canadian provincial and federal law still requires royal assent.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, this Platinum Jubilee has been accompanied by questions, grumblings and outright growls at the power and privilege of the British monarchy — as more nations seek to cut their ties to it.

November saw Barbados become the latest to transition to a republic. The island nation had signaled its intent years ago, but took action as protests after the murder of George Floyd prompted a global reckoning over anti-Black racism and, in Barbados, over its history at the hands of British slavers.

What followed were shambolic tours by members of the royal family to remaining Caribbean Commonwealth countries. As a nonagenarian, the queen no longer travels overseas. Thus, younger royals were dispatched to “celebrate” this year’s jubilee on her behalf. Things didn’t go well.

Prince William and and his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, were dogged by protesters in Belize in mid-March, with outings canceled. Days later in Jamaica, other protesters demanded reparations for slavery, holding signs demanding the royal couple “seh yuh sorry.” The royal heirs, once styled as rejuvenating the royal institution, listened stone-faced as the country’s prime minister declared publicly that the country was “moving on” to “become an independent, developed and prosperous country.”

Things didn’t go much better weeks later when the queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, and his wife, Sophie, were asked by the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda whether they would use their influence to demand reparations for the slavery in that nation.

Little wonder, then, that many eyes were on the visit to Canada by the immediate heir to the monarchy, Prince Charles, in May. Having lost India in 1947 and a dozen-plus other territories in the ensuing decades, Canada (and to a lesser extent the more strongly anti-royal Australia) represent the shiniest remaining “jewels in the crown.” The trip went off relatively quietly, without controversy, but without much enthusiasm for the man who will one day fill his mother’s role.

Nearly four generations of Canadians have known no one else but Elizabeth as sovereign, and most respect her partly as head of state, partly as “everybody’s grandma.” Some of my earliest memories are watching news footage of a smiling lady in blue with all sorts of medals signing a piece of paper in a very grand setting in what my parents assured me was a very important moment. That moment was the repatriation of Canada’s Constitution in 1982. Until then, to change our own constitution, my country had to ask Britain for permission.

“Her Madge” is enjoying something of a personal renaissance in the land of the maple leaf, even as public opinion about her children and grandchildren has plummeted. Canadians grieved with her when her husband of 73 years died last year, and today data from my organization, Angus Reid Institute, finds she is now the most popular senior member of the royal family.

But warmth toward the queen doesn’t necessarily translate into enthusiasm for the continuation of the institution she heads long-term. Our institute’s data also shows the monarchy’s lack of personal relevance to Canadians by a margin of 2 to 1, and ambivalence over what happens when the great lady slips the bonds of this mortal realm.

The face of Canada is changing, and so, too, are attitudes. At a time when conversations about reconciliation with the country’s Indigenous peoples invariably turn to the need for “decolonization,” the monarchy is no longer roundly perceived as in step with current values.

Moreover, 50 years of immigration to Canada from all parts of the world means personal ties to England are growing more tenuous. Those whose parents came from former colonies in the Caribbean, India and Hong Kong carry mixed feelings.

If anything saves the monarchy in Canada, it will be political inertia. Here, politicians are loath to say anything of substance about staying a Commonwealth realm, largely because they are loath to even think about opening the Pandora’s box on the complicated constitutional amendments needed for such a change.

Long term, though, they may not have a choice. The prospect of swearing allegiance to a King Charles and a Queen Camilla … well, future generations may just not be able to get the words out. While nearly 60 percent of Canadians say they will feel some amount of sadness when the queen dies, just 34 percent say they’ll support Charles as king. Even fewer are willing to accept his wife, Camilla.

Over the next few days, Elizabeth will bask in the glory of a well-deserved international party honoring her 70 years of duty and public service. It is the least the world’s remaining Commonwealth countries can offer as a sign of respect and care. But it might also be the most. If it has been hovering in a purply twilight in the post-war era, the next 50 years may well see the sun finally set on the last vestiges of the British Empire.