Other View: A reign characterized by dignity but marred by scandal after scandal
Although her actual power was minimal and her seven-decade reign symbolic, Queen Elizabeth II was a marker of a bygone historical era. She ascended to the throne in 1953 and assumed the role of a fighter and cheerleader during the postwar rebuilding period of economic stress and growing commonwealth upheaval. Though she didn’t coin the phrase “Keep calm and carry on,” Elizabeth embodied it. She was not just a survivor but a symbol of British endurance and perseverance, blazing her unique path as head of the British monarchy until her death Thursday at age 96.
Elizabeth also reigned amid the steady dismantling of the British empire, when nations as diverse as Egypt and Argentina openly defied the notion of British military supremacy. The “troubles” in Northern Ireland and persistent efforts by Scottish nationalists to withdraw from the United Kingdom only added to the image of a monarchy losing the respect of its people. If it fazed Elizabeth, she never let on publicly.
Perhaps her biggest challenges were posed by her own family members. She effectively forced Prince Charles — now King Charles III — into a marriage not of his choosing with Diana Spencer. Although she bore him two sons, Diana was not the focus of his affections. He carried on a persistent and increasingly public affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, a married woman. That led to a scandalous royal divorce, followed by the paparazzi hounding of Diana until her death in a car crash. Elizabeth’s unemotional handling of Diana’s death and failure to recognize the princess’s enormous global popularity marked one of the low points of her reign.
Modernity continued to be unkind to the queen, who grew up in an era when private affairs were kept private and the press kept a respectful distance. Unrelenting attention by the British tabloid press led to one scandal after another. Charles’ brother, Andrew, was caught up in the Jeffrey Epstein sexual abuse scandal, leading to accusations in U.S. court that he raped a woman when she was a teenager. The queen wound up relieving Andrew of his royal duties, stripping him of his military and royal titles.
Prince Harry, the second son of Diana and Charles, married Black American actress Megan Markle, adding new tensions and public relations challenges amid murmurs of racism within the royal family. Harry ultimately renounced his royal status and departed Britain. The scandals no doubt wore heavily on Elizabeth and increased her resolve to remain in the throne rather than cede it to Charles.
Charles is unlikely to have it any easier, though his energy and mobility should help raise the royal profile in ways that Elizabeth simply couldn’t as her health steadily declined. Though an aura of controversy will probably forever surround Charles’s reign, Elizabeth will forever remain a symbol of unity, grace and dignity in a world that badly needs more such reminders.
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