The Death of Queen Elizabeth II: Q&A with Dr. Robert Bucholz
Loyola history professor Dr. Robert Bucholz is a leading expert on the history of the British court, and is Loyola’s resident British royal family historian. Following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022, Dr. Bucholz appeared on WTTW / Chicago PBS to speak on her death and what it means for Britain. He will also serve as a live commentator on WGN for the Queen’s funeral on September 19th. Here, Dr. Bucholz offers his perspectives on the Queen’s death, her legacy, and how Britain will move forward.
1. How do you think Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered?
To most Britons, she will be remembered as a good Queen and a model constitutional monarch, someone who represented the nation very well. She navigated the complexities of being a figure-head and virtual Mother of the Nation nearly perfectly, showing just the right amount (for British sensibilities) of compassion and empathy while remaining politically neutral through 7 decades of changing tastes, social mores, and communication technology. At the same time, the very legitimate questions being raised about the long-term legacy of the British Empire, the role of the royal family in its prosecution, and the Queen’s personal responsibility as figure-head of a government that sometimes committed or supported oppressive policies and deplorable acts during decolonization will not go away, especially among historians.
2. What does the death of the Queen mean for the future of the monarchy in Britain?
For the moment, nothing. The point of the institution is stability and continuity, and the new regime would be foolish to break what has worked so well for so long. At the same time, the new king is a student of History (in which he majored at Cambridge) and he knows that many issues (like Britain's colonial legacy) have been swept under the rug as the last reign wound down. King Charles has indicated that he wants to trim the working cohort of the royal family, which should make it easier to control the messaging. But, having learned from a master, I would think it ill-advised for him to change too much. Right now, those advocating abolition of the monarchy are laying low in Britain because they know that there is no traction to be gained now, in the midst of a national outpouring of grief for a beloved sovereign, and some correlative sympathy for the new one. One would think that he will do everything in his power to avoid giving them an opening.
Incidentally, I note that the British people have been getting lots of advice in the US Press from columnists and letter writers suggesting that the death of Britain’s longest reigning sovereign is a perfect opportunity to finally get rid of the antiquated institution she headed, i.e., the monarchy. While I am a U.S. citizen and do not consider myself a monarchist, I have come to see utility in a system that separates political power and electoral politics from the nation’s symbolic and ceremonial head and embodiment. After all, while the Queen’s approval ratings have hovered at 80% for years, successive occupants of the White House have been positively and vociferously hated by nearly half the citizenry – though never the same half. In Britain, the Head of State is a focus of national unity, which really helps when trying to rally the nation (e.g., the Queen’s speech about COVID-19 in April 2020). Here, not so much. Over the past two weeks, the United Kingdom has shown how a mature democracy transfers both political power (Johnson to Truss) and ceremonial power (Elizabeth II to Charles III) peacefully and unanimously. In light of the debacle of our most recent such transfer in 2020-21, I would say that their system is not quite out of gas yet.
3. How might public opinion of the monarchy change with Charles as the king of Britain?
For decades he has been less popular than his mother (mid-60s approval rating vs low 80s). Some of that is residual resentment of his role in the scandals of the mid-90s, some of it a response to the popular view of his personality and tendency to express his opinions. But both of those were constrained by his subordinate role as Prince of Wales. My sense is that there is much more to the new king than meets the eye. He is passionate for the environment, favors real ale, and, much more often than he is given credit for, speaks in favor of social justice, as in his recent protest of the British government’s decision to ship refugees, en masse and against their will, to Rwanda. He will be further constrained as king, but he will have a vast apparatus to make his views of things known, subtly. It is just possible that people will like them.
4. What do you think will characterize Charles III's reign?
It might be a short reign, like that of other long-serving Princes of Wales (George IV and Edward VII come to mind). It is thought by many that that his main job will be to preserve the institution for William and Kate, Prince and Princess of Wales and their children. It might, therefore, be something of a quiet, reactive caretaker reign (as William IV’s was). Or he might just decide to go for broke and turn Windsor Great Park into a wildlife sanctuary and offer reparations to formerly colonized peoples out of the Duchy of Lancaster’s revenues. His recent remarks in Barbados, at the ceremony in which the country, in effect, repudiated the Queen’s sovereignty, show that he is aware of the issue.
5. The Queen's death coincided with a major economic crisis in Britain, as well as the appointment of the new Prime Minister (Liz Truss). What will be most challenging for Britain as the nation moves forward through this crisis in the coming weeks with a new king and a new prime minister?
I think that the death of the monarch gives the new PM some breathing room, a chance to work behind the scenes to shore up her support and develop her policies while looking “prime ministerial” at great ceremonial occasions on national TV. Whether Ms. Truss can take advantage of this to begin to solve seemingly insoluble problems, like Britain’s Brexit mess, remains to be seen.
Dr. Robert Bucholz lectures on the British monarchy.