Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
Regime Change in the UK
“Hasta la vista, baby,” said Britain’s once and still quite conceivably future prime minister Boris Johnson, quoting, in his swan song for now, a line from the 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Johnson left office not in response to a vote of the British people but thanks to the equally unsparing judgment of members of his own Conservative Party. There was no single Nixonian outrage but rather a steady drip of salacious stories going under the collective title “Partygate” to offend the sensibilities of the premier’s more morally pristine colleagues.
Perhaps the one really unforgivable sin was the report that the tousle-haired PM and some of his cronies had seen fit to down a crate of champagne on the night before Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021. It took them a while, but the British press finally got hold of the story, which they ran alongside the image of a black-draped Queen Elizabeth sitting alone at her late husband’s service with headlines contrasting the head of state’s deportment with that of her “clownish” senior minister. It’s hard to survive something like that even in today’s morally fallen United Kingdom. Johnson may have to bide his time until a return.
That’s surely one of the great strengths of the British system: the premier of the day is essentially just someone temporarily hired to lead whichever party then happens to command a majority of seats in Parliament. There’s little or no pretense of the imperial trappings of the U.S. presidency, where it’s harder to get fired from office than it is to get there in the first place.
Both of Britain’s main political parties engage in this kind of ritual bloodletting from time to time, but the Tories always seem to wield the knife more swiftly, and to deadlier effect, than their Labour opponents. In November 1990, the party even contrived to dispose of the semi-divine Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher’s sin wasn’t so much her falling-off in popularity with the country as a whole—she’d won three elections in a row—but the fact that she and some of her senior colleagues had come to find themselves on opposite sides of the fault line that still dominates British politics: the nation’s proper place, if any, in Europe. This same issue subsequently ended the careers of the Tory PMs David Cameron and Theresa May in 2016 and 2019, respectively.
So there was nothing unusual—still less what some U.S. commentators called “unprecedented”—about Boris’s fall from grace last summer. For Britain’s Conservative Party, ruthless fratricide is lately the rule, and prolonged periods of internal cohesion or stability the exception.
All of which raises the question prompted by Johnson’s Terminator moment. Might his eventual return as PM bring the Tories some “Salvation,” like the movie’s 2009 sequel, or, echoing the title of the sixth and to date mercifully last in the film franchise, a “Dark Fate”?
I happened to be in London when Johnson’s first spell as premier expired early in September. It was all a peculiarly muted and British affair. No one made much fuss, let alone invoked the specter of a “constitutional crisis” or suggested that democracy itself might be imperiled as a result of what was effectively an inter-party coup. Instead of the rumble of tanks or the other “semi-fascist” apparatus Joe Biden would have us believe lurk just around the corner in the U.S., we were treated merely to the reassuringly dark-suited figure of Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbench MPs, stepping diffidently to the podium of a not-full conference room at the Queen Elizabeth Centre to announce the name of the nation’s new chief executive.
After reading out some of the contest’s laborious rules and regulations, Brady remarked simply that Rishi Sunak, lately the chancellor of the exchequer, had received a total of 60,399 votes from the party’s membership, and the incumbent foreign secretary, Liz Truss, 81,326 votes, “and I therefore give notice that the latter is elected as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party.”
Notwithstanding the result, it was widely believed the forty-two-year-old, smoothly internationalist Sunak, latterly one of Johnson’s most vocal critics, would in due course have his own “I’ll be back” moment. In the meantime, no one waved banners or broke into song, and less than ten minutes later the audience had quietly filed out into the pale British early autumn sunshine. That effectively concluded the transfer of power. There were, it’s true, a few churlish commentators who pointed out that the incoming PM was something of a political shape-shifter—she at one time called for the abolition of the monarchy—with little to commend her but her boundless self-confidence, yet the general mood was one of mild relief that the nation at least had an apparently halfway capable new leader.
The following morning, Truss made the five-hundred-mile journey north to metaphorically kiss hands with the Queen at the monarch’s residence in Scotland. We were told that Her Majesty was quite well but experiencing certain “mobility issues” that prevented her from journeying back to Buckingham Palace, where such ceremonies traditionally take place. On the morning of September 7, Britain’s daily press duly printed a reassuring photograph of the two women, the Queen stooped and white-haired but beaming radiantly, and then the nation went back to obsessing about the soaring cost of its household electricity bills and whether or not the English cricket team would prevail in its then-tied series of games with the visiting South Africans. (It did.)
Following that, the new PM returned to her residence at Downing Street and that evening announced the names of her first three cabinet appointments: Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor, Suella Braverman as home secretary, and James Cleverley as foreign secretary, meaning that for the first time there were no white males among Britain’s four great offices of state. Again, no one that I’m aware of thought this particularly newsworthy, nor made a fuss of it: something of a contrast to the nonstop clamor of multicultural “messaging” familiar in the United States.
Readers may also note the strange paradox that Britain’s Conservative Party leadership race had come down to a choice between an independent-minded professional woman originally reared in a left-wing household and the son of stoutly middle-class parents of Indian descent who migrated to the UK from East Africa, while the aggressively woke Labour opposition party remains in thrall to the superbly patrician figure of Sir Keir Starmer.
Later on September 7, Britain’s new prime minister was quietly given a “bridges briefing”—the code name for preparations for the Queen’s death.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Truss was on her feet in the House of Commons, outlining to MPs her plans for household energy bills, when she was passed a note by a ministerial colleague. It said that Buckingham Palace was about to issue a statement on the Queen’s health. Other members of the royal family, the note added, were even then making their way to the monarch’s bedside in Scotland by the fastest means possible.
Shortly after six that same evening I happened to sit down for dinner with my family at an outdoor table at a central London restaurant. There was rain, naturally: a solid, but unspectacular 1950s curtain of gray drizzle—the Queen’s sort of weather, if you will—that had steadily tapped down all day. Then abruptly it stopped. Our middle-aged waiter came out with the soup course, unsmiling, put the bowls down on the table, and stood there for a moment behind us.
“She’s gone,” he muttered.
I looked back and a tear was rolling down his face. Steady on, I momentarily thought; this is Britain. But then it hit me, too, and my appetite abruptly left me. How else was one meant to react to the death of someone like the Queen, a figure of stability and apparently of permanence throughout most of our lives?
Large crowds began to mill around the palace later that night, though none of the royal family were in residence there. Within hours pictures of the Queen appeared at railway stations, in store windows, displayed in shimmering neon on the billboard overlooking Piccadilly Circus. I went to a service at Westminster Abbey the following afternoon and for the first time in my life sang the words “God Save the King” in our national anthem.
The new monarch himself appeared in London that evening and left his car, solemnity etched on his face, as two helicopters swooped overhead, to walk among the crowds, a gesture unthinkable so soon in the aftermath of previous royal deaths. One elderly woman seized his hand as he passed her and kissed it. A younger woman with pink hair went into paroxysms: “Oh my God, he’s there, he’s right there!,” before literally screaming “Charles!,” as if the sovereign were treading on her corns. Little cellophane-wrapped bundles of flowers were piled up everywhere.
Of course, this is the 2020s, when words such as self-denial, humility, and restraint, the very qualities embodied by the late Queen, are usually uttered, if at all, with either irony or disapproval. I can report that there appeared to be little overt sign of collective grief among the literally hundreds of patrons of the two adjacent pubs situated outside my London hotel’s front door, who continued to shout, laugh, brawl, regurgitate, and not infrequently publicly relieve themselves long into each night in the week between the Queen’s passing and her funeral.
Two days later, I found myself in the normally staid, tree-lined streets of suburban Wallington, Surrey, where a lunatic with a megaphone, dressed in seventeenth-century Puritan clothes, informed pedestrians that the late monarch had been an imperialist and tyrant of whom we were now well shot. No one remonstrated with him. A few feral teenagers in incongruous American football jerseys wheeled around aimlessly on their bikes, not hostile to the man, not joining in either.
After a while a second individual, heavily bearded, strolled up in a faux-regal white ball gown, but with luxuriantly hairy arms, listened to the Puritan for a moment, slowly shook his head, and then suddenly broke forth into a lusty if off-key rendition of the national anthem. Again, most people just walked by, their faces averted, or in some cases smiling indulgently. You were reminded again of that somehow quintessentially British flair for marrying formality and buffoonery.
It’s said that in extremis, our lives flash before our eyes. In the case of the late Queen, it seems, it was her life that did the flashing before the eyes of the nation. She’d simply always been there, on the banknotes, addressing us each Christmas, knighting people, shaking hands, opening things, the matriarchal figure at the center of everyone’s favorite soap opera. In a world of change, she never wavered. Her death may have finally drawn a line under the era we knew as “postwar,” where qualities like stoicism and self-effacement still just about prevailed in British life, if never quite the same again in the wake of the 1960s, and where nobody blamed, whined, or emoted.
Having taken the throne in 1952, when there was still an entity called the British Empire, and the phrase “stiff upper lip” could be, and was, applied without satire, she survived to see a time of lost certainties, mass immigration, gender fluidity, and a class structure so discredited that to dare speak in anything like an “educated” accent is widely regarded as professional suicide. That the new female prime minister, once of a state school in the deeply unfashionable city of Leeds, would at least briefly preside over a cabinet comprised of every skin color and social background perhaps tells its own story of Britain’s evolution in the second Elizabethan age.
Of course, there were rocks ahead. In one way, poignantly enough, it’s as though the seventy-year reign just past never really happened. King Charles III has ascended the throne, just as his mother did, at a time of global conflict with painful material consequences for the United Kingdom. Today, it’s the continuing Russian adventure in Ukraine. In February 1952, it was the Korean War.
The UK economy was in trouble then as it is now; in fact for those of us Brits of a certain age it might seem our entire lives have been spent under the shadow of a looming financial Armageddon. In 1952, inflation in the UK averaged about 11 percent, while the nation’s GDP expanded a mere 1.6 per cent. Those figures are depressingly similar to the numbers being posted today, quite apart from the staggering bill racked up by the COVID-19 Support and Alliance Act, as the sanitary dictatorship devoted to the religion of health is formally known.
It’s a sobering truth that, for all the undoubted change to the social fabric of the British Isles, some good, some perhaps not so laudable, during the Queen’s long reign, the nation has barely crept forward from its state of perennial near-bankruptcy. A full revolution, as it were, has brought us in a circle.
Both Britain’s new monarch and his first prime minister came to office at a moment of profound national loss, in their own ways offering balm for the troubling times. In the King’s case, it was in the form of a moving public tribute to his mother, followed by the promise of continuity: “As the Queen herself did with such unswerving devotion,” he remarked on September 9, “I too now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation,” a well-judged address to the nation he ended with a final flourish borrowed from Shakespeare—“May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
In Liz Truss’s case, it was a matter of celebrating the sound, traditional values of the United Kingdom, allied to a good deal of boosterish rhetoric about the somehow familiar-sounding need to “make Britain great again,” rather than to agonize over the correct use of pronouns or any other forms of the decadent lunacy that define so much of today’s Western political discourse.
“I see myself as the disrupter-in-chief,” the new premier announced, in reference to a woke political culture she characterized as being more interested in expressing simulated moral outrage at historical grievances than in serving the present-day needs of the public.
With what seemed like dizzying speed, the iconoclasm and optimism Truss spoke of would then be tested by events. Even before the immediate shock of the Queen’s death faded from the headlines, much of the talk in Britain was of a cost-of-living crisis expected to worsen as winter asserted itself.
It’s an extraordinary fact that this remains the land of unrivaled pomp and circumstance, its big-city streets teeming with revelers of every apparent race, religion, and national background, its restaurants and bars full to capacity, and its department stores piled with so much luxury it approaches squalor. Yet it’s also the country whose train drivers, teachers, postal workers, nurses, and even its high-priced barristers, or trial lawyers, are all either set to strike or threatening to do so, where there’s a collective hospital waiting list of eight million people, and in which a government report leaked the same week the gold royal coaches were rattling up and down the streets of central London revealed that several provincial British town councils were busy preparing their art galleries, museums, and public libraries as communal “warm banks” in the event people were unable to afford to light or heat their homes during the winter months.
Both of Britain’s new leaders, royal and civil, thus faced challenges more taxing than the issue of whether or not Harry and Meghan truly loathe William and Kate, or if Boris Johnson would ultimately knife his successor in the back, that seem to obsess large parts of the U.S. media.
The plain fact is that the late Queen inherited a spirit of automatic deference, at a time when Britain was a world power and its monarch had a “Page of the Backstairs” and a “Yeoman of the Pantry,” not to mention a fully staffed oceangoing yacht, at her disposal. King Charles’s country is different. The underlying state of the economy is as bad as ever, and the Brexit division, which split the nation nearly down the middle, is still a wound that won’t heal. Devolution in Scotland is on the move, even after the downfall in February of that country’s termagant first minister, Nicola Sturgeon; and Northern Ireland, the permanent crisis point of British politics, remains in a state of transition begun by the Good Friday Agreement nearly quarter of a century ago.
Without delving too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, it might be fair to observe that people as a whole seem happiest when led by a figure young enough to offer an often spurious but invigorating sense of modernity or old enough to be venerated as an institution. King Charles took the throne at the age of seventy-three, not quite one thing or the other. He will have his work cut out.
Liz Truss, meanwhile, swiftly gave her name to a phenomenon stand-up comedians will long compete to crack jokes about: “Trussonomics,” or the idea that merely borrowing billions to slash taxes will in some way lead to rapid fiscal growth. When the markets decisively rebelled against that delusion, with both British share prices and the national currency in freefall, the PM did the only honorable thing: she sacked one chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, and hurriedly installed another one, Jeremy Hunt. Truss’s critics were convinced she would still die another day and vowed to in turn replace her immediately after Hunt presented his emergency fiscal plan on—appropriately—Halloween.
In the event, even that brief moratorium was cut short when Truss suddenly saw fit to fire a second senior cabinet minister inside a week, Suella Braverman, an act of desperation from Downing Street that then managed to turn a routine Labour opposition attack—in staging a parliamentary vote on fracking—into the catalyst for the PM’s dramatic and, it has to be said, notably unapologetic resignation speech on October 20, after all of forty-four days in office. Rishi Sunak, the candidate Conservative voters had rejected in favor of Truss, now got his turn in No. 10 Downing Street.
If ever there were a living portrait of the essential gulf between the dutiful, self-effacing qualities of the late Queen and those of the fifteen often spectacularly feckless prime ministers who came and went during her reign, Liz Truss would surely be it. Truss was not the first politician to make an abrupt U-turn, and no doubt she will not be the last. But it’s fair to say that her comically brief premiership did not get off to the smoothest of starts and seemed to do little more than offer a series of increasingly futile crisis-management measures, as opposed to any coherent or unified vision of the nation’s future.
First there were the unfunded tax cuts that no one except Truss and her short-lived first chancellor apparently wanted. After that debacle the PM insisted she remained committed to a “high growth” economy but glumly conceded: “The way we are delivering our mission right now has to change.” Following that there was a spectacular gaffe about whether or not Britain’s state pensions, or Social Security equivalent, would be increased in line with inflation, retained at their existing level, or even reduced, with No. 10 forced to admit that the matter was “under review.” Then there was the question of whether to distribute what Truss described as “handouts” to help British consumers with soaring energy costs or to pursue the government’s alternative idea that corporate tax cuts might somehow be of greater practical benefit to the estimated six million householders in arrears with their heating bills.
Surveying the wreckage of the UK’s shortest-lived premiership, one can only sadly conclude that Miss Truss was one of those politicians who appear to brim with every quality, most notably in her case a relentless jollity, bar that of a true understanding of or compassion for those who empower them in the first place: again, a poignant contrast to the values embodied by the late Queen.
Of course, there will always be idiots who complain on CNN that the British monarchy has “blood on its hands” because of its Victorian-era colonial practices, or more reasoned judges unable to reconcile themselves to the inherently unfair concept of inherited privilege. After all, the origins of monarchy are antediluvian. No self-respecting democrat could possibly countenance the idea of hereditary titles and being born to eminence, particularly should one of those doing the inheriting happen to be Prince Andrew. Yet here we are.
There are moments when even to those of us with a fondness for tradition the whole edifice of the British monarchy seems a patent absurdity, with its pervasive air of entitlement and deeply unattractive satellite members, and surely destined to go the way of the Habsburgs or Romanovs before it. But the scenes in the second week of September outside Buckingham Palace, with the new monarch metaphorically and sometimes literally embracing some of the tens of thousands of loyal well-wishers waving miniature Union Jacks and shouting “God Save Your Majesty” surely confirm that the King, in stark contrast to his unlamented first prime minister, retains the priceless capacity, which lies at the heart of the unwritten contract between a divine ruler and the public, to connect directly with the people.
In that context, perhaps the most profound of the many millions of words uttered in the immediate wake of the Queen’s death touching on the future of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, and the country’s time-honored governmental system as a whole, came in a muted exchange picked up by TV cameras in a palace reception room when Prime Minister Truss, herself just days into the job, approached the new monarch to offer her condolences on the loss of his mother.
Apparently we were not supposed to hear his response, but it came through clearly enough. “It’s the moment I’ve been dreading, as I know a lot of people have,” said the King. He paused for a moment, as if grappling with his emotions, and then added: “But you try and keep everything going.”
At least someone appears committed to doing so.
Christopher Sandford is the author of Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain and The Man Who Would Be Sherlock: The Real-Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, among other works.
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