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The end of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign

Today, historian Dr Cindy McCreery on Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy, and what’s next for the monarchy.
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Late last week, news broke that England’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II had died at the age of 96. 

During her 70-year reign the Queen has steered the royal family through immense social and political change, and there are many who mourn her death.  

But there is also a complex legacy of colonialism to grapple with, and questions are already beginning over whether Australia should now re-consider becoming a republic. 

Today, historian Dr Cindy McCreery on Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy, and what’s next for the monarchy. 

 

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest: Historian Dr Cindy McCreery.

 
Read Transcript

##Archival tape – *BBC*
“A few moments ago, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. The palace has just issued this statement, it says: The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon.”

##RUBY:
When the Queen’s death was announced, in the UK and Australia, television presenters immediately switched to being dressed in black.

The BBC will not play any comedies on television between now and the Queen’s funeral.

Radio stations in Britain have all switched to more sombre playlists of music.

None of this is done because it’s the law—there aren’t orders written down to do it—it’s because of the influence and respect the Royal Family still commands.

The Queen managed to maintain that.

Born into a world where about one in six people were a subject of the British Empire, she ascended to the throne during the dismantling of that empire and the forging of a new Commonwealth.

So, what will her death mean? For us, for the Royal Family, and for the institution of the British monarchy.

Today, historian Dr Cindy McCreery, on the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

It’s Monday, September 12.

Cindy, Queen Elizabeth II was Britain's monarch and our head of state here in Australia for 70 years, so an incredibly long time. Her death last week, what does it change? 

##CINDY:
Well, Ruby, in some ways it changes absolutely nothing and yet everything. Nothing at all because of course we know that the constitution in Britain is set up so that once the monarch dies, immediately the heir to the throne becomes a new monarch. So Charles was already the monarch well before there was any funeral for Elizabeth or a coronation. And so in that sense, it's a very seamless transition which has been very deliberately planned. On the other hand, I'd say everything because of course for really most people alive today, the Queen has been the only monarch that most of us have ever known. And that's true not just for people in Britain or in Commonwealth realms like Australia, but it's true for people around the world. I think when people talk about the Queen, they are referring to only one possible queen and that is Elizabeth II. So it's a really momentous time and I think that as the days, weeks and months and years continue, that people will continue to reflect on the loss of this queen, who has been part of, I think, our mental furniture for over 70 years.

##RUBY:
Mmm, absolutely and the world was so different 70 years ago when she first came into power. She was 25 years old when she was coronated in 1953. So what was her life like then and what was the British Empire like back then?

##CINDY:
That's right, Ruby. Her life, and the life of the world, has changed enormously. 

##Archival tape – Presenter
“Her Royal Highness, Princess Elizabeth.”

##Archival tape – Queen Elizabeth II
“In wishing you all good evening, I feel that I am speaking to friends and companions.”

##CINDY:
She is born in 1926 when Britain still has an empire but with the challenges brought about by WWII.

##Archival tape – Queen Elizabeth II
“Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers. My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all.”

##CINDY:
By the end of the war, it's very clear that India, what will become Pakistan, and many other parts of that empire are going to become independent. 

##Archival tape – Jawaharlal Nehru
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life in freedom.”

##CINDY:
And that happens from the 1940s. 

##Archival tape – Jawaharlal Nehru
“When we step out on the road to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance.”

##CINDY:
But in 1953, when the Queen is crowned, we can see that the Empire is already devolving; the Empire is being replaced by a Commonwealth of Nations, and that most members of that Empire will join of their own free will as member states in what we now know as the Commonwealth. 

##Archival tape – Queen Elizabeth II
“In a way I didn't have an apprenticeship, my father died much too young and so it was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can.”

##CINDY:
So for the Queen, she has a very sheltered life. She doesn't go to school, she doesn't go to university, she's tutored in her constitutional duties. 

##Archival tape – Queen Elizabeth II
“It's a question of maturing into something that one is not used to doing, and accepting the fact that here you are and it’s your fate.”

##CINDY:
And she doesn't have much in common, really, with most of the people in Britain, let alone the rest of the world that she is monarch of. But I think what's notable about the Queen is that she adapts, that she travels widely, she makes herself known. We know that she's said she has to be seen to be believed.

##Archival tape – News Reporter
“Princess Elizabeth and her husband, once again Britain's young ambassadors, have undertaken the strenuous 30,000 mile tour.”

##CINDY:
And she does that. She travels enormous distances, is seen by millions of her subjects, and manages to convince people that in this new era of the Commonwealth that she is still a great leader and that the Commonwealth itself is a worthy heir to the former empire, and that indeed the Commonwealth will allow things like democracy, human rights and the rule of law to prevail.

##Archival tape – News Reporter
“During their travels, the young couple, as in Canada, will meet not only young prime ministers and statesmen, but also the ordinary young men, women and children who make up our great Commonwealth.”

##CINDY:
I think there are questions about how successful the Commonwealth has been, but I think the Queen has done much to establish and maintain the reputation of the Commonwealth. 

##RUBY:
And Queen Elizabeth was the first reigning monarch to visit Australia back in the 50s. And she ended up making 16 trips here, I believe, in total. So can we talk a little bit about our relationship with her and how that has evolved over the years? What sort of reception has she had and how has that changed during pivotal moments in Australian history? Things like after the Governor-General dismissed Gough Whitlam and later on when the idea of a referendum became more popular and we ended up having a vote on that in the nineties. 

##CINDY:
Yeah, that's right. So since the Queen first came to Australia in 1954, she of course has changed and evolved. She was then, of course, a young, glamorous wife and mother.

##Archival tape – News Reporter
“A city and a continent are waiting, for a Queen is coming… a Queen we have never seen.”

##CINDY:
And I think many older Australians today would look back on that 1954 tour as really the pinnacle of Australia’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth. 

##Archival tape – News Reporter
“And here they are at last, amongst us, moving in triumphal progress through each city in its turn, Sydney first, boisterous open-handed Sydney, painting the big town red white and blue.”

##CINDY:
But also with a great sense of affection and respect for her as she aged and as her own family life developed. As you say, this wasn't a reign that was without controversy, certainly the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

##Archival tape – Gough Whitlam
“Well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General.” 

##CINDY:
Also, I think the response to the death of Diana in 1997, the Queen was criticised in Australia, as in Britain, for what was seen as an initially cold, unfeeling response. 

##Archival tape – Queen Elizabeth II
“Since last Sunday’s dreadful news, we have seen throughout Britain and around the world, an overwhelming expression of sadness at Diana's death. We have all been trying in our different ways to cope. It is not easy to express the sense of loss…” 

##CINDY:
In terms of the referendum on becoming a Republic. The Queen has, I think, always been very clear, and this is true not just about Australia but other parts of the British Commonwealth, that it is absolutely the right and the decision of individual states and populations as to whether or not they want to become republics or not. And that she and the British government support governments that choose to become republics. And of course, that doesn't disqualify those states from either joining or remaining within the Commonwealth. So I think she's managed to support or at least to be seen as not standing in the way of constitutional change around the Commonwealth, but has also, I think, maintained a sense, particularly Australia, of great respect for Australia that has been returned in turn by the response of Australians. 

##RUBY:
People do often point to the establishment of the Commonwealth, its iteration at the moment and her approach to that, as her legacy and as a successful kind of thing that she's managed to pull off. What are your thoughts on that?

##CINDY:
I would agree. I think if you look back to, for example, the 1960s and 70s where there was great turmoil, there was the Cold War, there was great violence in a number of states that were becoming republics. The Queen, I think, went out of her way to exude a sense of calm, but also acceptance of states that were becoming republics. And although she didn't attend any republic day ceremonies, because that was seen as a bit awkward for the British sovereign to do so, she was absolutely supportive of members of her own family going to represent her in those republic day ceremonies. And so to most recently, Charles went to Hong Kong to commemorate the handover of Hong Kong to China. 

So I think the Queen has been seen as supportive or at least understanding of the Commonwealth and that has stood her in good stead. I would say that Charles, the next monarch, has shown a different interest, namely he’s, I think most people would agree, a really committed climate change and environmental campaigner and in many ways the kinds of issues that he cares deeply about, such as the environment, such as youth culture, are ones that are of interest to many Commonwealth states as well. 

And so he, I think, will be a more hands-on head of the Commonwealth. The danger there, of course, is that he also has a track record for meddling or at least appearing to meddle in British politics and that has created some alarm. And so I think that is a danger for him.

##RUBY:
We'll be back after this.

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##Archival tape – Interviewer 
“I just wonder what you thought, what your first reaction was, when you heard the news that the Queen is under medical supervision?” 

##Archival tape – Citizen
“I mean I think it’s pretty sad when anyone kind of gets in that position, like you wouldn’t want that to happen to your own family member, but I’m not like the biggest fan of the Queen or just the monarchy in general. So I wasn’t like that upset or overwhelmed by it, it was just something that happens I guess. 

##Archival tape – Interviewer
“You’re not the biggest fan of the monarchy, I wonder why? 

##Archival tape – Citizen
“Mainly to do with British colonial history, things like that. A lot of things that have gone on that have been quite shady…” 

##RUBY:
Cindy, there'll be a lot of people who will mourn Queen Elizabeth in the coming days and weeks. Here in Australia, Parliament won't sit for 15 days and in the UK her funeral is due to happen in about a week's time and that will be a moment of profound reflection. But when you look around the world, the legacy of the monarchy will be reckoned with in very different ways, won't it? So, how are people who are in former colonies, countries like Ireland or Pakistan, India, likely to remember her and what she represents?

##CINDY:
Look, that's a really good question. I think on the whole, most people and most states will distinguish between the Queen herself and the legacy of the British Empire, which is of course a very painful and complicated subject. 
And by the way, I do think that in the next reign we will see more open discussion of that legacy. But I think for now, the response we’ll see and we've already started to see, is a great sense of admiration for the Queen as an individual, respect for her role as head of the Commonwealth and a sense of mourning that is genuine. And I think we see that around the world and it's not just the case of Commonwealth realm leaders expressing that sense of admiration for the Queen, but also presidents of republics that have a you know, very complicated and painful history as former British colonies. 

I think where she fell foul of public opinion was more in her response or apparent response to things like the death of Diana, where she was seen to not really recognise the enormous global grief at that event. And I think too more recently, the scandals involving her son, Prince Andrew, have also cast doubt on her role in perhaps shielding him from police attention…

##Archival tape – News reporter
“An American woman has filed a civil lawsuit in New York accusing Prince Andrew of sexual abuse. In a statement, Virginia Guiffre, claims she was trafficked to the Prince by convicted paedophile, Jeffrey Epstein, when she was 17. The Duke of York has consistently denied the allegations.”

##CINDY:
And that has not gone down well. 

##RUBY:
Mm, and I wanted to talk—you've just referenced some of the things that the monarchy has been grappling with in recent years—I think it's fair to say that it's been a difficult time for the monarchy. There have been, as you say, these allegations around Prince Andrew. There's been the fallout between Prince Harry and Prince William. There's been accusations of racism within the palace. How do you think the queen has navigated that? 

##CINDY:
Well, again, I think on the whole, these issues have not really managed to dent her own reputation. And again, we do have to remember that, of course, there's a lot of energy that goes into shielding the monarch in a way that doesn't shield say the end of the throne or junior members of the Royal Family. I think there are concerns about racism within the Royal Family but I would also acknowledge that, as I understand it, Meghan Markle, for example, has never sort of named or suggested that the Queen personally expressed racist views, but that it was an issue within the family sort of more widely. I think this moment, however, of her death, may be an opportunity for Prince Harry and Meghan to reconcile or at least partially reconcile with Charles and William. We saw those photographs of Prince Harry travelling to Balmoral soon after the death of his grandmother. I mean this might be a moment for some of the family wounds to be healed. And in that sense, I suppose the Queen would be seen once again as a unifying factor. 

##RUBY:
Yeah, there's no doubt that the legacy of Diana will hang there, as well as the colonial legacy of the monarchy. And we've seen recently here the Greens Senator, Lidia Thorpe, she refused to swear allegiance to the person that she described as the 'Coloniser Queen'. So for people like Lydia, for those people who clearly feel anger towards the British Empire, will the Queen always be associated with that legacy in some way?

##CINDY:
I think for some people, the answer will be, yes. But I would also acknowledge that for some Indigenous people in Australia and elsewhere, the Queen and the monarch has actually been seen as an apolitical figure to whom Indigenous Peoples could communicate with to sort of make plain their grievances against the State so that, you know, the Queen is not just seen by Indigenous Peoples as necessarily a symbol of colonialism, although I take that point. But for others she's actually seen, or the monarch has been seen, as a sort of an alternative to what they see as a kind of entrenched racism of government. So I think it's a complicated legacy.

##RUBY:
And just staying with Australia for a moment, there is already a conversation happening again about whether or not Australia should become a Republic. So how do you see that playing out now?

##CINDY:
Well I mean, I think we have to take the government of Anthony Albanese at their word. I mean, they have said that their priority, at least in this first term of government, is to get the Indigenous Voice enshrined in Parliament and I would think that that's not going to change. We do know, however, that Anthony Albanese appointed an Assistant Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite, specifically tasked with setting up the pathway for Australia to have another referendum to become a Republic. So I think it's coming, but my sense is that the Indigenous Voice in Parliament will continue to take precedence there.

##RUBY:
And Cindy there will be challenges for the British monarchy ahead, won’t there? Was the Queen really the last monarch who will be able to command the level of respect that she did and what is the challenge for the new King, for King Charles, in trying to hold on to that?

##CINDY:
I think the Queen was very aware that she was a ceremonial leader, that she no longer had political power. And she was very careful to make sure that she didn't overstep the mark. So I think she saw herself as acting as a constitutional monarch, which is what she was. So I think that was a good choice, a good decision for her. 

I think the future of the monarchy is much less certain now, not just because it's Charles on the throne, not Elizabeth. But I think there are, as we know in Australia, but also in the UK, increasingly vocal calls by republicans to have more public discussion about the constitutional future of Australia, but also actually in the UK. And so that's something that his reign will have to contend with.

Some would say that the time, given the crises the world is facing, and in the United Kingdom in particular, it is time for the monarch to step up, to speak on behalf, for example, for the people. So perhaps that is an opportunity that Charles will seize that the Queen didn't. And in that sense, that might be a new way for the monarch to make a real difference. But it is a danger, after all, the monarch is constrained by parliament. And when a monarch is seen to speak out too much, that is seen as distracting from the proper governance of the nation. So I think it's a very tricky role to pull off.

##RUBY:
Cindy, thank you so much for your time.

##CINDY:
It's a great pleasure. Thank you. 

[Advertisement]

[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
Also in the news today…

On the day of the Queen’s death, Qantas announced that it had restored CEO Alan Joyce’s pay to pre-pandemic levels.

He’ll receive $2.17 million in base pay and was granted 698,000 share rights, which will activate if Qantas makes a profit by August 2023.

And...

A rapid Ukrainian counter-attack over the weekend has forced Russian troops to withdraw from key towns in the east of Ukraine.

If Ukrainian forces can hold the territory, it would be the most significant defeat of Russian troops since they were forced to withdraw from areas surrounding Kyiv in April.
 
I’m Ruby Jones this is *7am*, see you tomorrow.  

[Theme Music Ends]

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