UK-based correspondents assess how Britons will deal with political turmoil, Brexit, recession and the loss of the Queen
“The days we are living through mark a new beginning. Only time will tell what the post-Elizabethan era will bring. For the moment, what it does feel like is a juggernaut of one too many challenges coming at the same time, a surreal wave. The aftermath of the pandemic, which has left the UK with a lot of scars; Brexit finally being felt in real life, whether on the M2 towards Dover, in my local Sainsbury’s, or in the port of Larne; Russia’s war on Ukraine; a fourth prime minister in six years. And now the death of Elizabeth II, who seemed to many immortal.
“Reporting on the UK as a foreigner often makes it easier to take a step back, to see “the big picture”. Since last Thursday, though, this has become a challenge. The 24/7 coverage of the Queen’s death is all-consuming with layers of events, history and traditions to process. It would not be fair to suggest that these layers are somehow serving to sugarcoat the crisis in this country. Elizabeth II was a historic figure, she symbolises a century that transcended Europe’s borders. What I do notice, however, is that the foreign media cover this long period of ceremonial mourning with less servility. Hardly any British media, for example, dared comment on King Charles III’s rude gesture of impatience during the acclamation.
“Many Brits could not care less that the Queen is gone. But millions do mourn her death and feel a personal loss. To many of them, the royal family represents a kind of comfort, of glamour and gossip, a way to forget about one’s mundane, often tough life. Possibly this acute feeling of loss is made even more painful because so many people fear the immediate future. Wasn’t Brexit supposed to give the British back control? Six years on, life for many is even more beyond their control.
“What I am sure of is that the moment these days of national mourning are over, reality will hit, and it will hit hard. Remember the Monday morning after the splendid platinum jubilee? Graham Brady stood on College Green and announced a vote of confidence against Boris Johnson. Politics in this country is ruthless.
“Therefore, while I am convinced that King Charles III will manage to convey the crown’s spirit of steadfastness to the nation and probably also to the Commonwealth, I hesitate to expect the same for Liz Truss.”
Stefanie Bolzen, UK and Ireland correspondent, Die Welt, Germany
“Two basic tasks have long faced any new foreign correspondent arriving in the UK: the first, to catch a glimpse of the English essence, to read Orwell’s famous essay, The Lion and The Unicorn; the second to start documenting the life, role and achievements of Elizabeth II, the only public figure able constantly to attract the attention of your readers.
“Orwell wrote: ‘England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly. But in any calculation about it one has got to take into account its emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.’
“Yes, Brexit has shown the UK’s ugliest side to the continent. The wounds of that prolonged row will take years, to heal, if ever. Yes, that whole political process has poisoned the public debate and created divisions in society hard to understand in a country that feels culturally quite different from southern Europe.
“Charles III inherits a land with deep territorial tensions – Scotland wants to give independence another try, and Northern Ireland’s unionists fear their worst nightmare, the unification of Ireland, is a fait accompli; the Johnson years have deepened public mistrust of politics; the pandemic has revealed, in all its cruelty, the scarcity of resources invested in such a once sacred institution as the NHS. And a new recession, heralded by galloping inflation – the real thief in the night for working-class people, has caught the government off guard, with a new PM who has everything to prove, having been elected by a small number of Conservative members.
“And yes, the turmoil the UK has been in for the last few years offers European readers a mischievous schadenfreude. But only up to a point.
“A certain idea of Britain, as an old parliamentary democracy, flexible enough to cope with any challenge and still full of resilience, remains in European minds. Elizabeth II was the epitome of a sense of duty and service that is greatly admired abroad. The rituals and ceremonies put in place during this time of transition, broadcast and followed all over the world, are ultimately the truest expression of the United Kingdom’s national identity. It is when we witness them play out that this country, sometimes so hard to explain, is easily recognised.”
Rafael de Miguel, UK and Ireland correspondent for El País, Spain
“Does Queen Elizabeth’s funeral symbolise a rueful Purcell-like march for the United Kingdom itself? Will this, as Julian Barnes once wrote, be ‘the land of embarrassment and breakfast’”?
“Despite the colossal challenges ahead, I don’t think so. Like King Charles III, George VI was also considered unfit for his ‘job’, before confounding his critics. Secondly, as Robert Harris recently told me, ‘keeping the head of state separate from politics is a precious guarantee of liberty. Monarchs may be unpopular sometimes, but the institution will survive’.
“The monarchy is one of the UK’s most successful and beloved brands. What other monarch’s death could command 20 pages of coverage in the newspapers of foreign countries? Which other monarchy has been the subject of a hit Netflix series? I work for an Italian newspaper whose name means The Republic, but our articles on the British monarchy are routinely among the most read.
“Sure, British politics looks shambolic. After four prime ministers in six years, the UK suddenly resembles Italy (where many now joke about this.) But the UK has, despite its flaws, what I consider the best electoral system in the world, which simultaneously secures local representation and stability (if PMs do well) and filters out extremist parties with no presence on the ground.
“What is worrying is the polarisation of British politics. Northern Ireland will be a dangerous mess if the UK fails to reach a settlement with the EU and sell it to politicians. Scotland’s independence is a real possibility, but the chaotic outcome of Brexit for Northern Ireland might be a strong deterrent in a potential new Scottish independence referendum. Liz Truss’s draconian rhetoric and the hard right of the Conservative party will be even more divisive than Boris Johnson. Despite being led by a decent politician like Keir Starmer, the Labour party seems devoid of any real vision. As for Brexit, Britain has lost access to the world’s largest (and its geographically closest) single market. In 2016, halting immigration was a bigger priority for the majority of the public but discussing the real economic consequences of Brexit remains taboo: a reflection of that admirable British pragmatism that invites us to always to look ahead.
“‘The maxim of the British people is “business as usual”,’ Winston Churchill said. For sure, these are extraordinary times that are going to change Britain for ever. Queen Elizabeth’s death also leaves a hiatus internationally. A more insular British attitude has been obvious in recent years and I know that many young Italians feel less connection with their favourite European country post-Brexit. The risk is always that the UK ends up not as Global Britain but Little England. This, too, would have been a nightmare for the Queen.”
Antonello Guerrera, UK correspondent, La Repubblica, Italy
“Since the abolition of the monarchy after the first world war, Austrians, generally, are quite happy republicans – at least since the end of the Third Reich. But all Austrian TV channels have been broadcasting the scenes in Britain live. In Vienna, the former capital of the Habsburg empire, flags will fly at half mast during the Queen’s funeral next Monday.
“Even Vienna’s coffee shops, once havens of rebellious intellectuals, seem to be filled with people talking about how much they miss the Queen. It is not so much monarchist nostalgia and a longing for Austria’s own legendary Empress Sisi that drives this astonishing interest. Rather in times of Zeitenwende, when nothing seems to be the same and a nuclear war inflicted by Putin seems a possibility, a pause to remember better times is a welcome distraction.
“The deeper outpouring of grief in the UK is understandable but seems also to unlock something else: grief, stress and sorrow over a fate the Disunited Kingdom has chosen for itself. The Queen’s funeral will mark the moment when Britain also bids farewell to the country as it was once known. The British empire used to anchor the UK firmly in the world. Later, as part of the EU it had international influence and remains still one of the biggest economies of the world.
“But questions hang over all of that. The empire is increasingly seen as a colonial crime and the strains of Brexit might tear the union itself apart. Scotland seeks independence. Northern Ireland is moving closer to the republic in the south. Having taken itself out of the daily business of the EU, Britain’s place in Europe is weaker. On the world stage it has to fight for attention as a mid-ranking trading nation going it alone.
“A country claiming to be Global Britain has, meanwhile, since Brexit, become a narrow minded, anti-immigrant, internally divided society. Driven by a sect-like group of conservative Brexiters it has ended up with a minister of energy who is a climate sceptic. It tells you a lot about the state of the UK that Jacob Rees-Mogg is more reactionary in his environmental policies than the new king Charles III.”
Tessa Szyszkowitz, UK correspondent for Austrian weekly newspapers Falter and Profil