After Queen Elizabeth’s passing, Britain may never be the same again, for reasons that cannot be attributed exclusively to Buckingham Palace.
Today, a combination of factors threatens the long-standing entity that the United Kingdom has known. Starting with Brexit and the receding influence of the Commonwealth that binds the UK to its old colonies, and not ending with the rising separatist calls, specifically in Scotland.
The monarchy itself is alive and well in Britain. In my opinion, Charles III's ascension to the throne will maintain the monarchy’s popularity. As a crown prince, the King was always in the public eye and remained close to the people. A one-man protest during the King’s coronation and anti-monarchy demonstrations here and there are not news. Such acts of protest have always been there, but they have never succeeded in gaining traction and bringing in sweeping popular or political currents.
Until recently, Britain was the largest empire known to mankind, despite its small size. It dominated the world, from China to California. A quarter of the world's population fell under its rule, thanks to its battleship cannons and fierce sailors. For two centuries, it led the worlds of science and capitalism. Through its expansion, it brought civilization to the farthest corners of the world and became a prosperous state using the resources of its colonies. Its rail network ran for 350,000 kilometers across the world, while the rest of the world had only 30,000 kilometers combined. The British transported soldiers, horses, and supplies on their trains and ships and ruled the world in the nineteenth century, despite having a population of merely 18 million at the time.
Historically, all empires had a colonial past: The Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, French, Russians, Dutch, Belgians, Portuguese, and Spaniards were all colonizers, just as the British were. There is a dark side to all empires with slavery, wars, and borders, coming to the fore, and the British were no exception. On the bright side, the British Empire brought along their science, arts, architecture, medicine, new machines, and modern political systems.
Some summarize the history of the British empire to the slave trade and exploitation, but this is a trait shared by all major empires. The English, just like the Arabs and Romans, collected outposts and traded in slaves. The Turks brought along what was known as Janissaries: orphaned children taken as prisoners of war, kidnapped from Europe, and raised to fight in the Sultan's Guard and the Imperial Army. The difference is that Britain allows the discussion and criticism of the sins committed by the empire in its schools and media, while the Arabs, Persians, and Turks only boast about the bright sides of their glorious history.
The old era of empires and the conquest of the world by major armies has ended, making way for cyber armies and multinational corporations. The ugliness of World Wars I and II convinced the West that colonial conflicts threaten the existence of states and the world. Britain's victory in both wars did not prevent its empire’s rapid demise and the rise of the American and Soviet powers.
Britain's past is crystal clear, but its future is uncertain. It may not be as jeweled as it was in the Victorian era, nor will it retain all the legacy of the empire from the reign of Elizabeth II. As it shrinks geographically and loses major markets, the UK’s global position is threatened with relegation to just another former major empire, as happened with Spain.
Britain will increasingly turn to markets in our region and Oceania to compensate for Brexit. As for Charles III, despite having no political functions per se, his ascension to the throne will help the British government market its projects to the world, thanks to the King’s long-standing and far-ranging connections. He has known the royal families of the Middle East for a long time and enjoys friendly ties with them, and many governments still see London as the gateway to influence Washington and as the mediator that’s most cognizant of politics and history.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.