The big moments that define countries are few and far between. In the UK, they are often not even General Elections, although this can occasionally happen. Nor are they often when there is a change of government or Prime Minister between elections. Rather, on many occasions, points of dramatic change have little to do with a direct expression of the popular will, having an indirect, more elusive connection to public sentiment.
We are living through such a major moment in the history of the UK. We are witnessing history being made which will affect all of us for the rest of our lives. There will be consequences we can only begin to sketch and which will in future have some surprising turns.
The death of the Queen after 70 years on the throne is not only the end of an era, it is the end of a certain version of Britain. That is the Britain which still had a direct connection to the Second World War. It was a society which believed in authority, order, public duty and the common good, as well as such traditional values as hierarchy, status and knowing your place. The latter set have been weakening for decades and replaced by a new set of barriers and exclusions equally problematic.
The UK's post-war moments of change
Apart from UK General Elections where there has clearly been a case for seeing them as transformative era-shifting contests, such as Labour's victory in 1945 and Thatcher's in 1979, what is striking is that this amounts to a mere two contests out of the 21 held since 1945. That is a pretty low strike rate – such occasions of far-reaching change having been very rare.
In post-war Britain, the moments of major change would include 1 January 1973, when the UK joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) along with Ireland and Denmark, turning the original six into nine.
This was presented at the time by UK politicians as the country joining what was merely a trading bloc, which was a deliberate and conscious deception, and one which was to have lasting and damaging consequences. The UK's motivation for joining was also relevant. Its political, corporate and media elite saw the country as 'the sick man of Europe' and in terminal decline: in order to embrace modernisation and change, it was necessary for the UK to join the European project. This defeatist sentiment was to have a long-term effect when the forces of the right sensed they had no confidence to challenge it.
A second transformative moment was 23 June 2016, when the UK narrowly voted 51.9% to 48.1% for Brexit, leading to the UK leaving the European Union on 31 January 2020. The EU had expanded to a club of 27 states at the point the UK left – the first member state ever to leave (the previous exits all being parts of other territories: Algeria 1962, Greenland 1985, Saint Pierre and Miquelon in 1985, and Saint Barthelemy in 2012).
We are still living with the self-harm and deceptions of Brexit, the lack of clarity, mandate and honesty about a hard Brexit, and a UK under the Tories which seems to be prepared for permanent argument with its European neighbours and even jeopardising the Irish peace process. All in the pursuit of an elusive, pure version of sovereignty.
The other occasion involving democratic engagement would be Scotland's 2014 independence referendum. This is a moment which shook the UK to its core, and terrified its political elites and establishment. Yet, despite this, they seem to have learnt nothing from Scotland voting 55:45 against independence – and instead have presided over a union which has dramatically degenerated subsequently.
Scotland and the UK have been utterly changed by 2014: the union was conditionally endorsed and is now on a last warning in Scotland, while the idea of independence has now come centrestage in political deliberations and even collectively in how Scotland sees itself.
Life, death, and the power of commemoration
Two other occasions define the UK since 1945. The first is the coming to the throne of Elizabeth in February 1952 and then her Coronation in June 1953, following the death of her father George VI.
This was the beginning of the modern-day monarchy – an uneasy compromise which saw royalty slowly open itself up to TV and media. The 1953 Coronation at Westminster Abbey was broadcast live on the BBC in black and white, with camera angles and what they could cover all carefully negotiated and controlled in one of the first major outside broadcasts in the UK. This made it one of the first of what were to become many shared national moments provided by live TV which contributed to a sense of shared images and collective memories.
The second and one much less referenced, despite the legend and iconography of the man, was the funeral of Winston Churchill in January 1965. At this point, the UK was 20 years on from the end of the Second World War, which seemed a distant conflict long ago and which Churchill, along with Clement Attlee who died two years later, were two of the last major connections to.
To younger generations, Churchill, who died at the age of 90, would have seemed by 1965 to be a figure from a completely different age, world and Britain. Indeed, at the time, that was one of the dominant interpretations of his funeral, alongside respect and an element of awe.
Similar to 1953, the occasion was broadcast live on TV in black and white. This involved his funeral being held at St Paul's Cathedral, followed by his coffin being transported down the Thames on a special boat – MV Havengore – followed by a train journey on the steam locomotive Winston Churchill, to his final resting place, St Martin's Churchyard, Bladon.
Churchill's funeral was that rare occasion in the UK: a state funeral. The last one before 1965, outside of UK royals, had been that of controversial Unionist leader Edward Carson, who pre-First World War had brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war. Subsequently, there has, until the death of Elizabeth, been no other state funeral. Controversy surrounded the funeral arrangements of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, with many of the public objecting to the idea of a state funeral. She was given a 'ceremonial funeral', which is a similar, but lesser, tribute.
In 1965, younger voices were impatient to embrace a Britain which culturally and metaphorically went from black and white to colour, from the old stuffy high bound order to something freer and more open. People were desperate to break out of the old codes of deference, class hypocrisy and deceit, and dismantle the traditional order which was seen as holding Britain back.
That Britain duly arrived in the 1960s: a young, classless, impatient, joyful, celebratory Britain of innovation and imagination. It was a country and culture which made people sit up and take notice of Britain – as a place of change, creativity, ideas and the future.
Yet that Britain which had international reach and appeal was eventually incorporated, maybe even subjugated in a version of the UK which represented and remembered a fabricated, invented sense of itself and the past. Out went Britain as a place which looked to and was confident of the future, and in came constant references to a very selective past: the Second World War and the defeat of the Nazis as our central story, and even an attempt to reclaim the British Empire, colonialism and imperialism, as forces which did good, casting a veil over honest reappraisal and honest assessment.
What do these national moments, in which the direction and idea of Britain turned, tell us about the present and possible futures? The first observation is that there is no such thing as a tidy, predictable pattern from the present into the future. The patterns and evolution of Britain, royalty and society which will unfold over the coming weeks and months will see an attempt to remake and renew royalty which will not tell us much about long-term trends.
The second is that the nature of that longer evolution will probably not be too easy to identify in the attempts to remake Charles as monarch, the new roles for William and Kate, and new era for the House of Windsor, which will try to draw a line under its recent spate of controversies and difficulties. For one, the latter have been magnified and multiplied by internal fissures in the Royal Family which will continue into the future.
A third point is that long-term factors which the British establishment and royals have tried to avoid facing for generations will increasingly come to the fore. This includes that the practice of having a Royal Family at the heart of not just the UK's public and celebrity culture, but at the centre of the political establishment and constitutional arrangements, is not really sustainable.
The UK Royal Family is an anachronism, a relic from the days of feudalism, absolutism, the divine right of kings and queens, and the rest of us being serfs and their possessions. It has no place in a genuine political democracy or a modern country.
The UK is not a genuine political democracy – containing numerous relics from the ages of feudalism and absolutism, such as the reality that we, the citizen non-citizens of the country, only elect half of the Palace of Westminster. The other half of the legislature is made up of feudal appointments and, more recently, the expansion of Prime Ministerial patronage. This latter power has increasingly been subject to abuse and misuse: Tony Blair's illegal war and the awaited scandal of Boris Johnson's resignation honours list.
Sadly, the UK is, as we speak, not a modern country. The attempts to modernise the UK and make it a force for progress and good looking to the future: of 1945, 1964 and to a lesser extent 1997, all failed to overcome the forces of conservatism, power and privilege, and eventually ended up being defeated by them.
We are living with the consequences of that. A country which has turned its back on the future, lives in the past, and a fabricated past at that which is used to sell us a deception: that we can be somehow comfortable, at peace and prosperous, in what is in effect a decrepit old stately home of a country, with an upstairs and downstairs, 'us' and 'them', those empowered, global and mobile, and the rest of us, powerless, firmly rooted in place and restricted in our social mobility.
Britain has turned its face against the future. It has been a palace revolution which has massive consequences far beyond the palace. There seems, as we survey the wreckage, little prospect of the countervailing forces reseizing the initiative of remaking the idea of Britain and bringing it into the 21st century.
It would be great to be proven wrong on this, as this is the age of disruption and surprises, but for that to happen people are going to have to want to come together in common endeavour and say that the present state of affairs is unacceptable, and overthrow the debased, self-aggrandising, corrupt elites who dare to think they are our betters.