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Queen’s Death Leaves UK grapple with its sense of national identity

LONDON — The long-awaited news — Queen Elizabeth II was dead — when Britain activated Operation London Bridge, the painstakingly choreographed funeral plan that leads the country through the rituals of tribute and mourning that culminate in her burial 10 days later.

But the plan, with its metronomic precision, masks something far more messy: a rift in the national psyche. The Queen’s death last week, at the age of 96, is a truly traumatic event, leaving many in this stoic land fearful and unharmed. As they come to terms with the loss of a figure who embodied Britain, they are uncertain about their country’s identity, its economic and social well-being, or even its role in the world.

To some it almost looks like London Bridge is down.

Such trauma was not entirely unexpected: Elizabeth reigned for 70 years, making her the only monarch most Britons have ever known. But the fear runs even deeper, scholars and commentators say, reflecting not only the queen’s long shadow, but the troubled land she leaves behind.

From Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic to the serial scandals that recently ousted Prime Minister Boris Johnson from office, the end of the second Elizabethan era was a time of endless turmoil for Britain.

In just two months since Mr Johnson announced he would step down, inflation has soared, a recession is looming and household energy bills have nearly doubled. Nearly lost in the global eruption following the Queen’s death, the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, was on the job for three days, rolling out a contingency plan to limit energy prices to a cost likely in excess of $100 billion.

“It’s all fueling a sense of insecurity and insecurity that was already there because of Brexit and then Covid, and now a new, very inexperienced prime minister,” said Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at the University of Oxford. The queen, he said, was the rock, “and then the rock is removed.”

Not just the rock, but the rhythm of British everyday life: her effigy is printed on pound notes and stamps, her royal monogram – ER for Elizabeth Regina – adorned on flags and red post boxes across the country.

At the formal proclamation of her son, Charles, as king on Saturday, the void the queen had left was palpable. Her empty throne, with the initials ER, loomed for a meeting of the new monarch; his heir, Prince William; the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the Prime Minister and her six living predecessors.

For older Britons, in particular, the loss is “deep and personal and almost familial,” said Johnson, who paid tribute to the Queen in parliament on Friday, four days after she accepted his resignation in one of her latest acts.

“Maybe it’s partly that she’s always been there, an unchanging human reference point in British life,” he said. “The person who, according to all research, appears most often in our dreams. So immutable in her North Star radiance that we may have been lulled into thinking that somehow she could be eternal.

Beyond the Queen’s steadfastness, Mr Johnson and others said, was her immense global stature. She was a living link to World War II, after which Winston Churchill helped draw the map of the post-war world, sitting around a conference table in Yalta with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.

Mr Johnson and Ms Truss have returned to that role with their strong support for Ukraine. But Britain today is less of a major power at the center of global decision-making than a medium-sized one cheering from the sidelines. Fittingly, Churchill was the last Briton to receive a state funeral in 1965—until that of the Queen, on September 19 at Westminster Abbey.

“My own personal reflection is that there will probably never be an occasion where another British figure worldwide is so mourned,” said Oxford Professor Garton Ash. “It’s, in a way, a final moment of British greatness.”

Despite all the trappings of power, the Queen projected influence not through political or military strength, but through an enduring duty to the country. Her wartime service and dignified stewardship contrasted sharply with Britain’s often heady politics, not to mention the foreign strongmen she sometimes had to host.

Some said she pioneered the practice of what came to be known as “soft power.”

‘I cannot lead you into battle,’ said the Queen in 1957. ‘I do not give you laws, nor do I judge you, but I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these ancient islands, and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.”

In the parks and squares around Buckingham Palace, where many people gathered on Saturday, people spoke of her loss in political and personal terms. “She meant reliability and stability,” said Kate Nattrass, 59, a Commonwealth member of Christchurch, New Zealand, a health recruiter.

But the Queen did this at the cost of great personal sacrifice. “In many ways she was a woman who was bereft of the ability to be herself,” Ms Nattrass said. “She probably missed a lot of her own family because of that.”

Callum Taylor, 27, an actor from the North West English city of Preston, traveled to London to leave yellow roses at the palace gates. He said he had heard that yellow was one of Elizabeth’s favorite colors. Mr Taylor admitted he was unsure of his information but added: “I think we all felt like we knew her.”

While the Queen has long been revered – the swelling crowds at her platinum anniversary celebrations in June testified to her enduring popularity – her role arguably became even more important after Brexit.

With Britain no longer part of the European Union, the country’s pro-Brexit government has reverted to symbols of its imperial past, ordering the Union Jack to be regularly flown out of public buildings, and pushing projects such as a new royal yacht ( neither King Charles III nor Mrs Truss seem particularly interested in that).

Respect for the Queen, hung over the rifts that have widened in the UK since Brexit. Scotland and Northern Ireland now each have sizable populations in favor of breaking down the kingdom, and it’s not clear whether King Charles will give them a more compelling reason to stay.

In Scotland, where the Queen died in her beloved Balmoral Castle, an independence referendum in 2014 was rejected by 55 percent to 44 percent. The Scottish National Party, which controls the country’s parliament, is determined to hold another vote.

Many in Ireland still remember the Queen’s historic visit in 2011, when she captivated audiences and spoke candidly about Britain’s strained relationship with its neighbour. “With the benefit of historical hindsight,” she said, “we can all see things we wish had been done differently, if at all.”

In Northern Ireland, however, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein became the largest party after the elections in May. Sinn Fein is also within easy reach of the largest party in the Republic of Ireland, a milestone that could accelerate its pursuit of Irish unification.

Managing the recalcitrant trade union parties in the north, who prefer to be part of the kingdom, has become a headache for the British government. Ms Truss, following Mr Johnson’s lead, is threatening to review the post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland, which are part of the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union.

The centrifugal forces are even greater in the widespread areas of Britain, such as Jamaica, the Bahamas and St. Lucia, where predominantly black populations are questioning the racist legacy of British colonialism. Barbados ousts the Queen as head of state in 2021, and Jamaica may soon follow.

On a problem-prone tour of the Caribbean last March, Prince William and his wife, Catherine, confronted calls for reparations for slavery and demanded that they confess that the British economy was “built on the backs of our ancestors”.

Vernon Bogdanor, an authority on constitutional monarchy at King’s College London, said Charles was a departure from other royals in trying to appeal to those on the fringes of society. He mentioned Charles’s visits to Tottenham, in north London, after riots broke out in 2011 following a police shooting.

For that reason, Professor Bogdanor said, among other things, that the new king could surprise those who were skeptical about his ability to replace his mother. Still, he acknowledged a surprisingly deep sense of loss at the Queen’s death.

“I feel more affected than I thought I would be,” he said. “It is not unexpected when a 96-year-old dies. The only explanation I can think of is that people instinctively sensed how much they cared about the country.”

Saskia Solomon reporting contributed.