The legacy of Queen Elizabeth II
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This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: ‘The legacy of Queen Elizabeth II’
Hi FT Weekend listeners! This is Lilah.
On Thursday, Queen Elizabeth II died. She was 96 years old, and she ruled Britain longer than any other monarch in its history: for 70 years.
Over the last seven decades, the Queen has been a symbol of stability and resilience. She was a monarch and a matriarch. This weekend, millions are mourning her death and remembering her life.
Outside of the Commonwealth, we’re used to leaders coming and going. But the crown is different. If you’re British, the Queen has likely been there your entire life. She swore in all the prime ministers you remember, 15 of them. And she was everywhere: on the money, on TV, on the mug in your grandmother’s cupboard.
However you may feel about the crown as an institution, the Queen was always there.
We knew the Queen was unwell on Thursday and likely to pass away imminently. So I asked the editor of FT Weekend, Alec Russell, to join me to reflect on her legacy.
I remember meeting her. I remember meeting . . . I met her. I met her. The first time was actually . ..
Alec had put his phone on silent as we were talking. And midway through our conversation, the official announcement came.
Alec I have to tell you that the announcement just dropped that the Queen has, in fact, died.
Oh my! Oh my! Goodness! I think the, I think the nation will be, will be utterly stunned. And I think a lot of people will start crying.
And, and I think it’s going to be a very sad week or so. Particularly obviously for older people, I think people in the 70s and 80s, but actually I think right through right through the country. Oh, my goodness! I don’t really know what to say. I don’t know what to say.
Can I ask how you’re feeling?
I don’t really know. I feel there’s a huge sense of loss. And I think that, obviously moments like this, it’s easy to get oversentimental. But she was a truly, truly remarkable person. And she has really, really helped Britain navigate its way into the 20th century and on through the 20th century. She’s helped the country come to terms with the loss of empire. All of which had happened before I was born. But the backwash of which was continuing to unfold when I was growing up and on into early adulthood. I feel very, very sad. But also proud, actually, I think. I think she was that, as I said, she was a truly extraordinary figure, and we were very, very lucky.
Alec, of course, did have a lot to say about the Queen as we continued talking. He has been a journalist since the 1980s. And, like many Britons, he’s also lived his entire life under her reign.
She had such an extraordinary life and not just for what she lived through. And she lived through a lot when you think that she came to the throne in the early years of decolonisation as the British empire was being unstitched. She was queen during the Suez crisis, during the Vietnam war, for Margaret Thatcher’s years in office and on and on over the decades. So, yes, part of the emotion is obviously just one of respect for such a long life devoted to her nation and to public service and duty. But also, she sort of embodied decency and just good values. And I think she’s played a phenomenal role in just helping the nation muddle along as nations have to do. And her loss is going to be felt very, very deeply.
Alec, I was thinking about how the last time something like this happened, when King George VI died, it was 1952 and Elizabeth was 27 years old. It was like a very different time. And I’m wondering if you can first tell us briefly, for anyone who doesn’t know — sort of — what does mourning period is going to look like in the UK.
Well, the clocks really just about have stopped across Britain. And I think this is the only occasion in my life and I’m 55 that, that this has happened.
All sports fixtures have been cancelled. Some public events will keep going. But, but not many business will broadly be suspended. Politics will broadly be suspended. And the nation will reflect on the past. Well, while a bit in grief and, and just a sort of, sense of I suppose a reflection, really. So it’s going to be a pretty extraordinary period. The Queen has been arguably the only symbol of continuity and stability in a particularly wobbly, turbulent time. Think of the last decade. There was a referendum over whether Scotland stays in the United Kingdom, which may have been reasonably comfortably won by the Unionists, those in favour of Scotland remaining. But for much of the campaign, it was terribly close and divisive. Then, of course, there was the vote over Brexit, the vote for Brexit in 2016. Then three years of just, just monumental wrangling over, over Britain’s future and its place in the European Union. Then Brexit happened. Then, of course, we had Covid in the meantime. And, and after Covid, we’ve had a succession of, of extraordinary governments, many of which have ended after just a couple of years. The nations had quite a tough time. And all the while the Queen has gone on through her late 80s and 90s, smiling serenely, saying the right thing, never putting a foot wrong. And now she’s gone.
Yeah. Alec you know I felt it quite viscerally when I lived in London for a few years that like Queen Elizabeth was kind of your glue. And, you know, there’s the initial mourning period. But do you have a sense of how do you think Britain will process this longer term?
Well, it’s, of course, quite an interesting time. We have a new prime minister. Prime minister who took office just a day or so before the Queen died. And we have a new monarch, the first new monarch in 70 years. And King Charles had a — how shall we put it — an awkward time in the minds of many in Britain in his middle years. I think most people would say that the fact that he’s had to wait until his mid-70s to ascend the throne is probably a good thing. But it’s a difficult time for him because the will once the reflection, the mourning, the pageantry, the pomp, once those have all faded away, I think people will start asking questions and saying, OK. Queen Elizabeth was a remarkable figure, very much in the tradition of her two great predecessors. Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century, and then, of course, Queen Victoria in the 19th century. But now maybe it’s time to rethink the monarchy. People will rightly be asking that, and they should, of course, too. This is one of those lines in the sand. And King Charles will have to make clear quite early how he sees the monarchy evolving and how he sees his role and to what extent he thinks possibly that the money spent on the monarchy should be spent differently or whatever. There will be, there’ll be big and important questions now.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, a lot of people think the monarchy is an institution that’s outlived itself. But the sense I got was that many people liked Queen Elizabeth very much personally, even if they didn’t like the crown. But they may not feel that way about Charles.
Well, I think that’s what would be very, very interesting. I mean, as you well know from when you’ve lived in Britain. One of the funny things about many people here is that city folk as it were, and with the friends, in the pub, chatting up work can all sound very Republican. But when there’s been a big symbolic moment in the royal family’s story, lots and lots of these same people who, who are public Republicans suddenly get a little bit dewy-eyed and they go to picnics and they wave flags. And so if I think King Charles plays his cards right, I doubt there’s going to be a big crowd marching to Buckingham Palace saying, you know what, this is the moment for it all to come to an end. But he does need to think very carefully about what sort of monarch he wants to be.
Alec, because you’ve reported from all over the world I’m curious if there’s anything about the Queen’s legacy that you think might be overlooked.
Well, I think that, that it’s very important to remember that the Queen is not just a huge figure in the life of, of Britain and the 65mn people that live here. She’s had a colossal global role as well. She made very clear soon after she ascended to the throne that the Commonwealth was tremendously important to her. And the Commonwealth is effectively the group of former colonies turned independent states and, of course, it could have been a total disaster the Commonwealth. Or just a sort of meaningless thing. I mean, you might say, well, why would these newly independent states in the ’60s and ’70s want to be part of anything to do with the former colonial power? And it was part of Queen Elizabeth’s genius I think that she set up a gentle gathering and allowed some of these new states to have a voice in a particular context that they might not otherwise have had. And bear in mind that while the Queen was constitutionally not allowed to be a political figure, every now and then, she did make important interventions. For example, in the last decade of apartheid, when the British government under Margaret Thatcher was against sanctions on the white minority regime, the Queen let slip that she thought that the apartheid regime should face sanctions. I mean, this was hugely significant for so many millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, not just in South Africa. So I think her influence is far broader actually than just in the UK.
Yeah. She had a monumental life.
She had a monumental life. And when you think about it, I mean, how many slips were there? So actually arguably there were two. One of which was on the very day I was born, which was on 21st of October 1966, which was the day of an appalling mining disaster in a small Welsh village called Aberfan. And a slag keep fell on the local primary school. I forget how many little children were killed. Over 100 or so. And the Queen, who then been on the throne for 13 and a bit years didn’t race to be there or I think it’s fair to say, acknowledged the public mood. Then in very different circumstances when in 1997, Princess Diana, her daughter-in-law, was killed in that awful car crash in Paris. Again the public sense that she and it was she they felt had misjudged the mood and she’d gone for the stiff upper lip and actually the nation wanted from her. They wanted more from her. And so it was a criticism, but I think it was also a sense of we need you, we need you to express emotion. So those two moments, yes, I think, could be seen as I don’t know, for want of another term, slips or misjudgments. Two misjudgments in 70 years. She really very, very rarely put a foot wrong. And, and, as I said, really helped lead Britain into a new era, which, again, sounds extraordinary given the changes. She’s the embodiment of the monarchy. That’s just brimming with tradition and which is best known for its ceremonial parades and pageants and so on. But there was a magic to it too.
Yeah. Alec, thank you for being with us on a very sad day.
Thank you, Lilah!
After my conversation with Alec, our producer Lulu Smyth went out to Buckingham Palace with her recorder. Lulu says that at the palace gates, it was sombre. People were crying and placing flowers. But across the street, at the Victoria Monument, the energy was more communal. People were singing, and drinking cups of wine. It was like they just wanted to be there. Together, on a historic day.
Here are a few of their voices.
[A PERSON SINGING IN THE BACKGROUND]
In Jamaica where I was growing up. When someone passed away, we normally just sing. Even in the midst of our mixed feelings. So I just try to bring a little flavour to the sorrow that we are feeling presently and enlighten our heart with hope.
It doesn’t seem real to me yet. I don’t think for a lot of people it doesn’t seem real. It’s a strange vibe here. I thought coming down here it made me understand, but it hasn’t.
She’s just kind of always been there, hasn’t she? Threw out every light change throughout our lifetimes? When I was about six, she came to Cardiff Bay. So I’m from Cardiff and I got lifted over the barrier by the police and I went up to her and gave her flowers and she shook my hand. So, yeah, quite special.
I was in my car and I was driving past Windsor Castle and I was listening to Radio four. And just as I was looking at the castle, the announcement came on that the Queen had died. So that was quite surreal. I felt like I was suddenly dreaming. I was sort of tearing up in the car. I never really thought I would. I’ve never been like a big royalist, so, yeah, it’s a weird feeling.
Can I ask what you’re doing?
So we wrote letters towards the Queen, and in order for her to read it, we burned them.
So what does the letter say?
I wrote it in German, and it’s in great admiration of her personality, of how she ruled the country and how she kept herself and deep respect to her.
We’re seeing the lighting of the letter now, the lighter at the bottom corner of the page.
Don’t know whether we’re gonna put it in here, here Nora. No, don’t put it in there, the ash.
Woah woah woah woah!
Charles is the king now.
It’s a sad day. She’s just been a real example lately to all of us. OK. And unfortunately, without the Queen, I’m not sure that I have respect for the royal family any more. You know, Charles is Charles. But, you know, obviously, I go back to when after Lady Diana died and all of that, and I think we might lose the royal family. Just my opinion.
Woman in charge
Yeah. Also, the money is going to change as well because it’s going to be his face on it. So I think everyone likes it because there’s a woman in charge as well. And now we’re going to have 150 years of a king. Nothing wrong with that. But I think everyone like the fact that our monarch was a queen.
That’s the show this week. Thank you, for listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times.
We’ll be back to our regular format next week. In the meantime, please feel free reach out. You can email us at email@example.com. The show is on Twitter @ftweekendpod and I’m on Instagram and Twitter @lilahrap.
The FT’s coverage of the monarchy is ongoing, and I’ve included some links in the show notes, alongside a way to subscribe.
I’m Lilah Raptopoulos, and here’s my exceptional team: Katya Kumkova is our senior producer, Lulu Smyth is our producer. Molly Nugent is our contributing producer. Our sound engineers are Breen Turner and Sam Giovinco, with original music by Metaphor Music. Topher Forhecz is our executive producer. And special thanks go to Alec Russell and Cheryl Brumley.
We’ll find each other again next week.
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