Britons’ shock and sorrow over the death of Queen Elizabeth II’s comes at an especially difficult time as the country – and the world – faces a cost-of-living crisis. But among the mourners around Buckingham Palace on Sunday there was a sense that the queen will remain a source of inspiration for the British people during difficult times.
Dark clouds drifted through the blue sky over London on Sunday morning as thousands flocked to Buckingham Palace once more to grieve for the queen.
Many mourners walking around St James’s Park next to the palace said the heartache over the queen’s death remained, despite the rapturous response to King Charles III’s emotional speech on Friday. Some said that anxiety over the state of the country made it worse.
“The British are worried,” said 30-year-old Londoner Laura. “Personally, I’m not doing too badly, but everybody here knows people who are struggling financially. And the death of the queen really, really didn’t help the mood.”
Indeed, the economic warnings signs are flashing red. Stagflation is on the cards. Inflation surpassed 10 percent in July, the highest figure in more than four decades and the highest in the G7 at present. At the same time, the British economy has rebounded from the Covid crisis more slowly than either the US or the eurozone.
There is a sense of political as well as economic malaise. For generations, Britain was renowned as a haven of political stability. But the churning unrest at the top of government attests to the fact that British politics has turned tumultuous in recent years: a third of the 15 prime ministers the queen has welcomed came just in the last 15 years of her seven-decades-long reign.
“The passing of our monarch for several generations leads to a sense of trepidation about what the future will bring, and it may be a time for a period of reflection before we recommence national life and have a new national dialogue about the direction of our country,” said David Whittington, a 48-year-old property consultant living in London, who was sitting on a bench in St James’s Park eating lunch with his young daughter.
“There is a nervousness as to the economic challenges we are going to face over the next six months to two years, and I think that affects every part of society,” Whittington continued. “People are entering a period of economic caution in their own lives.”
Whittington said the new king will be a reassuring head of state amid these difficult times, and expects Prince William to continue Charles III’s support for causes like environmentalism and affordable housing. “It’s quite clear that the new king will continue the constitutional monarchy’s cautious approach, and I suspect that we will see the prince of Wales [William] continue the social agenda that King Charles has furthered throughout his life,” Whittington surmised.
“The queen passing away came at an especially difficult time with the economy and I think she would have been an icon to lead us through that time – it’s really sad that she won’t be there to do that,” said Charlotte, a student from Belfast who had made the journey from Northern Ireland with her friend Rachel.
“But I think that Charles will really step up and lead us all through that in the same kind of sense.”
‘A servant leader’
Northern Ireland faces a particularly vexing situation, with Prime Minister Liz Truss planning to modify the deal with the EU keeping the British province in the European single market for goods. Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson struck this deal in 2019 – despite warnings that it would create a customs border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. But for all its political faults, the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol has given the province much-needed economic stability after years of uncertainty during Britain’s chaotic divorce talks with the EU.
For many in Northern Ireland, the queen was a symbol of peace and stability – notably thanks to the historic moment when she shook hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in 2012, representing the spirit of reconciliation in the province after the sectarian violence from the late 1960s until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“The queen was such a symbol of continuity throughout all the highs and lows of her reign, and she was such a symbol of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland – she shook McGuinness’s hand; she managed difficult relationships like that in such a delicate way,” said Rachel from Belfast.
But yet again there was a sense that the British will look to the Crown and still find reassurance in these times of turmoil. “The queen’s sense of duty and service shone through; she was a servant leader,” Rachel continued. “I think Charles will be a good leader; I think he’ll take after his mum.”
The queen was a paragon of calm and duty amid decades of turmoil and dizzying change, and that will remain a source of inspiration as Britain goes through tough times again, said Laura from London. “When you look at this country’s history, you see how we’ve prevailed through periods of difficulty. The queen embodied that; she lived through the Second World War and experienced its privations,” she said.
“It’s definitely a difficult situation, but the British know how to bounce back from it. Life goes on.”