Lessons on the transfer of power


The death of Queen Elizabeth II has dominated the news since she passed away at 6:30 p.m. of Thursday, Sept. 8, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

For us in the Philippines who have never been under extended occupation by the British empire except for their occupation of Manila and Cavite from 1762 to 1764, our association with Britain, especially among the Baby Boomers, started in our teens, with the Beatles, Cliff Richard, the Shadows, the Rolling Stones, and Mick Jagger. In school, we would of course be exposed to the works of William Shakespeare and other giants of English literature, and the contributions to science of Isaac Newton, and the role of Prime Minister Winston Churchill in peace making after World War II.

In later years, from the early 1980s and the mid-’90s, media featured one of the most recognizable faces in the world, Diana, Princess of Wales. We of course know, again through media, of the fairy tale wedding of the then Lady Spencer to Charles in July 1981 in London which was watched by more than a billion viewers on television; the birth of sons William and Harry; the turmoil engendered by first, her separation from Prince Charles III; Charles’ highly publicized affair with Camilla Parker Bowles before and during their respective first marriages; the divorce in 1996 that Elizabeth urged Charles and Diane to get; and the Princess’ death in 1997 due to massive injuries in a car crash in a tunnel in Paris as she and boyfriend Dodi Fayed fled from the prying eyes and cameras of the paparazzi.

Diana’s death added fuel to a fire engulfing the monarchy, as most Brits sympathized with Charles’ former wife. The Queen preferred to keep quiet about the death of her former daughter-in-law, whose beauty and engaging personality had transformed her into one of Britain’s most influential and liked personalities. The Queen and, eventually, the monarchy had become, in the eyes of the public and as expressed in various tabloid headlines, an uncaring head of state in the middle of the death of a woman who was “wronged” by her son and Camilla.

It was clear that despite the Queen’s admirable efforts to bring the monarchy closer to the people, the Queen had to do much more to reconnect with the public. The Queen had been placed in a difficult situation: to act as a parent and mother-in-law in the best interest of her family however negatively impacted the nation and the monarchy. Putting family first completely in this kind of situation would be harmful to her reign. She had rejected suggestions that she make a statement about Diana and express sympathy to Diana’s family. After all, the Princess was still the mother of her two grandsons, one a future sovereign, William and Harry.

In what was perceived as a class act, the Queen, however, did a walkabout and mingled with a huge crowd of mourners who had gathered outside Buckingham Palace. The Queen had rightly sensed that the monarchy was in danger and reconnected successfully with the public.

Elizabeth did speak on national TV and complimented Diana, who she treated with respect and affection despite the latter’s differences with her son. Her other ex-daughter-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, former wife of Prince Andrew, also enjoyed a cordial relationship with the Queen despite the racy photos of Ferguson embracing and kissing a Texan as her two-year-old daughter looked on.

Public approval for the Queen remained largely satisfactory after the televised address on Diana and the walkabout, but the same could not be said for Charles, despite his active work for his charities and his involvement in issues like climate change. Charles therefore has the difficult task of reaffirming the relevance of the monarchy, especially among young Britons.

Liz Struss who just took over as Prime Minister a few days ago and was able to call on the Queen on Sept. 6, two days before the latter’s demise, was critical of the monarchy during her youth. The 47-year-old Truss called the monarchy “disgraceful” in a speech delivered as a 19-year-old Liberal Democrat while in college: “That people, because of the family they’re born into, should be able to be the head of state of our country? I think that’s disgraceful.” Truss now belongs to the Conservative party and has reportedly done several 360-degree turns on her earlier positions.

Truss’ comment, even if it was made almost 30 years ago when she was still a teen, seems to be reflective of the current mood of the young towards the monarchy.

Reuters reported on May 21, 2021, a few weeks after the death on April 17 of the 99-year-old husband of the Queen, Prince Philip, that “young people in Britain no longer think the country should keep the monarchy.” The report continues to say that, “More (citizens) now want an elected head of state, with their mood souring over the last couple of years, a poll on Friday showed.”

The impact of Elizabeth and her popularity in the United Kingdom, no doubt due to her sense of commitment, duty, diligent service, and regal bearing during her lifetime somehow helped stop an imminent threat to the monarchy.

Writer Michael Holdren reporting while the Queen was still alive, said, “while there is no possibility of an end to the monarchy while the Queen remains on the throne, there is concern for the royals about a declining support among the younger Britons.”

Holdren says that a survey of 4,879 adults found 53% of those aged between 25-49 supported keeping the monarchy, down five percentage points from a similar poll in 2019, while support for an elected head was up four points. Amongst those aged over 65, 81% backed the monarchy, almost unchanged from two years ago, or 2020.

This uncertain environment is what Charles is walking into even as he vowed in his first address to his subjects “to serve with loyalty, respect and love.” The first indication of his desire to have an open monarchy was his own walkabout in front of Buckingham Palace upon arrival from Balmoral. Like a veteran politician courting votes, he pressed the flesh and even allowed a lady to kiss him on the face.

Charles has a hard act to follow. Elizabeth became Queen at 26 with England still recovering from the ravages of World War II, although she had the eminent Winston Churchill as head of government. She left as the country was still learning to deal with Brexit and recovering from a pandemic and the pummeling of the environment by disasters caused by climate change. Charles will have to deal with all that plus probable serious opposition to keeping the monarchy and internal strife among the royals. And he has a traditional politician in his corner who seems to change positions as often as she changes clothes.

At 73, Charles is the oldest person to become monarch in British history and is associated by the public with his charities, his service in the Royal Navy, and his playboy image that extended to mid-life. And, as pointed out by Mark Landler, the Queen’s death set in motion a transition that will be choreographed in its rituals but “what kind of monarchy it will produce is a mystery.”

What is the relevance of all these for millions of Filipinos grappling with food scarcity, high fuel prices, and veiled and not-too-veiled-threats to human rights and other threats to democracy? While admitting that a number of the processes of succession indeed do look choreographed as we watched CNN, the proceedings do show a basic respect for the law and democratic principles.

We could learn from this succession exercise and most definitely Trump and his Jan. 6, 2020 cohorts in the US Congress, state governments, and Republican fanatics.

Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.

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