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How has the world changed during the reign of Elizabeth II?

During the Queen’s long life, the world has witnessed profound changes in economics, warfare, technology and the nature of power itself. Richard Overy explores how the global landscape has transformed over nearly a century of a second Elizabethan age

Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag during the 1969 lunar landing
Published: June 1, 2022 at 11:48 am
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It is possible to take almost any span of years from the past few hundred to show how exponential has been the pace of historical change in all areas of human life. But the near-century spanned by the life of Elizabeth II has witnessed not only an unavoidable acceleration in the rate of change, but has also embraced a cluster of fundamental alterations in the way the global order is shaped. The challenge for the historian is separating out those more fundamental changes from the progressive movements in science, technology, medicine, education and economic development, the roots of which lie much further back in time.


These perennial patterns of change are important enough. Progress in all branches of the natural and medical sciences since 1926, when Elizabeth was born, has been extraordinary. In the 1920s, science-fiction writers might have imagined a man on the moon, animal cloning, IVF treatment or smartphones, but few would have thought all of these things possible within a few decades. The spread of education has transformed possibilities for populations worldwide (there are now a staggering 25,000 universities). And the development of the capitalist economic model has made most people in the developed world richer than they could have dreamed of at the time of Elizabeth’s birth.

In the 1920s, the world seemed poised at a dramatic moment, when the promise of a new economic order generated by Soviet communism posed a seemingly unstoppable challenge to the old-fashioned, laissez-faire industrial order. Few then would have confidently predicted that the model of modern finance capitalism would spread literally worldwide, even in nominally communist states – few but for Karl Marx himself, who predicted long beforehand that capitalism would become a world system before its revolutionary transformation.

These trends were all discernible well before 1926, and have continued uninterrupted during the lifetime of the Queen, spreading globally to reach regions and populations that were bypassed by most of the advantages of the modern age in the 1920s. Such trends are not to be confused with those changes that have helped to rewrite the history of the modern age. Of these, perhaps the most visible transformation has been the end of hundreds of years of territorial imperialism and of empire as a model of political organisation.

When Elizabeth was born, the British empire was the largest territorial empire the world had ever seen. Postage stamps bearing her grandfather’s portrait were used across six continents. In Europe, six other states possessed overseas empires; in Asia, Japan imitated them. It was still assumed that ruling subject peoples regarded as racially inferior was a permanent feature of the world order, and in the 1930s Germany, Italy and Japan set out separately to enlarge their territorial empires to challenge those of Britain and France. In effect, this was the last gasp of imperialism as a world order. The Allies fought the Second World War to overturn German, Italian and Japanese empires. In doing so, the British and French empires faced the unavoidable conclusion that, in destroying Axis empires, the whole imperial structure was itself doomed. Elizabeth never became empress of India; the subcontinent achieved independence in 1947, the year Elizabeth and Prince Philip were married.

Princess Elizabeth in 1930, not yet destined for the throne
Princess Elizabeth in 1930, not yet destined for the throne. (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)

Although Queen Elizabeth has been titular head of the Commonwealth since 1952, this has been the decoration necessary to mask the transformation of the world to one of independent sovereign nation states. The independence in 1975 of Portuguese Mozambique and Angola (Portugal’s was the first and last European empire) brought to a conclusion five centuries in which “empire” had been a dominant motif. By 1970, Britain’s empire consisted of little more than a string of islands worldwide, and by the 1980s many of those were independent. The public was much less affected by the change than might have been expected. The loss of imperial status made little difference to the position of the monarchy.

The second of these fundamental changes has been in the nature of warfare. Not accidentally, a great deal of the warfare of earlier ages, and the First and Second World Wars in the 20th century, was fought chiefly by European states whose identity was bound up with ambitions for imperial survival or succession, and whose populations mainly assumed that war was part of the natural order. When Elizabeth was born, the prevailing military culture, widely accepted by civilian populations, was one of total war – a concept of the modern age in which a state organised its whole society and economy to fight a war, whatever the cost.

The mass armies and economic sacrifices that characterised the war of 1914–18 left an indelible stamp on the postwar populations of those states that had taken part. When war planning began again in the 1930s, every potential combatant power thought in terms of devoting all its human, intellectual and economic resources to the grim task of waging it. Though small groups of pacifist and anti-war lobbyists thought such conflict was an affront to civilisation and should never be waged again, the general assumption was that modern war, waged with mass armies and massive expenditure, was a democratic war – one that ought to involve the whole population. When bombs fell on and around Buckingham Palace, the popular view was that monarch and people shared a common fate: a “people’s war” that was, paradoxically, also the king’s war.

No one now expects the major states to wage total war, mobilising all the resources of economy and people, fighting to the bitter end. Although the nuclear threat has hovered over the whole period of the Queen’s reign, the prospect of nuclear war has withered away with the end of the Cold War. Warfare itself has not disappeared – there have been small wars, wars of Cold War containment, civil wars, border disputes, United Nations interventions, even the Falklands War in 1982, Britain’s last international war waged alone – but the wars between the powers that characterised centuries of global history are no longer viewed as the usual state of things. Elizabeth II is the first British monarch not to face the prospect or reality of war with other major powers. Violence in the current global order stems from ideological confrontation and terror: a product of the collapse of so-called “failed states”, and a threat from which no state is immune, but not a threat likely to prompt a return to massive state-on-state conflict now or in the foreseeable future.

Queen Elizabeth II and world royalty in 2012
Much of the world’s royalty gathered at Buckingham Palace for the monarchs’ lunch in May 2012. (Photo by John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The third major change – the increasing role and power of the state itself – has been bound up with developments prompted by the collapse of empire and the experience of world war. The former accelerated the evolution of a world order based on the nation state as the key form of political association. The United Nations, founded in 1945 in San Francisco and subsequently based in New York City, now represents nearly 200 nation states.

When Elizabeth was born, there were wide areas of the world’s population where the state intervened indirectly, if coercively, through imperial control; in other parts of the world the state did what it had always done – raising revenues and imposing justice but not much more. In the developed industrial world, the state only grew in importance with the demands of wartime mobilisation that made it necessary to provide adequate statistics, to control areas of production, and to impose nationwide controls and restrictions. It is this model of the state – as a dominant and intrusive presence in the everyday lives of all citizens – that has been adopted in all the many new nation states that emerged out of the collapse of empire.

Looking back over the past century, it is difficult now to imagine communities in which the role of the state was limited: controls over movement less rigid; intervention in economic and commercial life restricted to things essential for the state’s functions; welfare, health and safety largely left to local communities; and the obligations of the subject or citizen relatively simple. The world of states has been transformed. The modern state as a set of regulations, institutions and practices has emerged quite independent of political forms or ideologies.

The most intrusive and vindictive of states flourished under Adolf Hitler and Stalin, and under dictatorship everywhere. But, even in modern democratic states with a developed notion of civil society and a progressive sense of liberty, the state has come to control, regulate, discipline and examine the daily life of its citizens at every point. It does so in the name of a putative collective good, but the state is the instrument for ensuring that the way that collective good is defined cannot easily be challenged.

The emergence of the modern Chinese state is perhaps a good example, where the collective interest in conformity is stressed by the state apparatus and dissent is regularly penalised. The instruments now available to a state in terms of surveillance and intelligence are vast and are used to marginalise dissent or, in the case of the conflict with international terrorism, to put a class of perpetrators beyond conventional law. This is the case for all states, whatever their political complexion. The paradox of democratic claims to stand for liberty is captured in the American detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, a permanent reminder of the extraordinary power now exercised by states and the incapacity of its citizens to challenge it.

Louise Brown, the world’s first “test tube baby”, born through IVF in Greater Manchester in 1978.
Louise Brown, the world’s first “test tube baby”, born through IVF in Greater Manchester in 1978. The past century has seen immense technological advances. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

That power has been recently tested in one of the most dramatic global experiences in the Queen’s lifetime. The pandemic of the SARS-derived Covid-19 virus, first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, has exposed just how fragile the modern world is in response to a global shock for which there was little preparation or forewarning. In Britain, the response was likened to the Blitz, when people pulled together to cope in the face of adversity – a reality that the Queen had experienced as a young princess in 1940. The analogy is not an ideal one, but both have involved mass death (indeed, the pandemic has killed more than the Blitz), broken families, a massive strain on the available healthcare system, and close state monitoring of public behaviour.

The response globally, though by no means uniformly successful, illustrates the extraordinary progress of medical science in supplying vaccines within months of the outbreak, and the degree to which populations can act collectively to mitigate the impact. A few years before the Queen was born, so-called “Spanish flu” killed at least 20 million worldwide. Covid-19 might have done the same, had weaker state structures and poorer medical facilities been in place. The effort to combat the pandemic clearly illustrates the progress made during Elizabeth’s lifetime.

On the podcast | Mark Honigsbaum compares the Covid-19 pandemic to previous diseases outbreaks over the past century:

Fortunately for the future, the growth of state power has emerged side by side with perhaps the most important development of the past century: the emergence of an international regime of human rights. Concern with universal human rights grew before 1926, but the instruments necessary to define and declare them emerged slowly out of the ruins of the Second World War, as the developed world gazed aghast at the consequences of war, genocide, mass deportation and political oppression.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the United Nations Genocide Convention (1948) and the European Court of Human Rights (1959) are typical reactions to the world crisis of the 1940s. The introduction of these instruments did not then ensure that any of them would be observed, since no real means of enforcement existed. Even the most recent, the International Criminal Court set up in 2002, has found it difficult to operate as intended, not least because the US – the venue of many of the early campaigns for universal human rights – refused to endorse it.

The significance of the new regime of human rights is not to be found in its achievements, which have depended on political circumstances and opportunity (even Elizabeth’s Britain has failed so far to produce a formal legal basis for rights), but in the projection of a baseline definition of what those rights should be, and a measure to assess the extent to which they have been abused or achieved in the new world of nation states. Millions of people worldwide still do not enjoy those rights in full, but the aspiration remains that respect for the individual human being will somehow overcome the attempts by states, security forces, multinational organisations or international terrorism to abuse human life.

Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement gather in Leeds, June 2020
Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement gather in Leeds, June 2020. Old views of race and empire have increasingly been challenged during the Queen’s lifetime. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

One recent example of a collective effort to ensure that rights really are enjoyed equally has been the Black Lives Matter movement, initiated in the US in 2013 in response to deaths of black Americans in police custody, and launched in Britain in 2016. The Black Liberation Movement UK, as it is now formally called, has led a wide protest movement against alleged police abuse of black Britons, but the movement is concerned more broadly with ensuring that modern communities respect racial equality alongside the other rights that everyone should share. Here, too, the Queen will have seen a remarkable change from the years in which she grew up, when white paternalism and overt violence were directed at the empire’s non-white subjects, whose rights were limited in the extreme.

All of these issues have involved large changes, and they have affected Elizabeth’s Britain as much as the rest of the world. One other change might have been predicted when the Queen was born in 1926: that monarchy as an institution was doomed. Already, in the first 20 years of the 20th century, the Manchu, Romanov, Ottoman, Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies had vanished. Portugal, Spain (temporarily), Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania all followed suit in turning out their royal houses. Yet the British monarchy has continued with scarcely a dissident voice, even surviving the crisis caused by the abdication of Elizabeth’s uncle, the uncrowned Edward VIII, in 1936.

When the Queen’s diamond jubilee was celebrated with a gathering of most of the world’s surviving monarchs in May 2012, it was evident that there was only one important member left among them. Despite the seismic shifts in the global order seen during the Queen’s lifetime, the British monarchy has survived the tremors with renewed vitality – an outcome far from certain in the distant years of world crisis before the Queen’s accession. And this despite the fact that the collapse of empire and the emergence of the modern state leviathan has rendered the whole traditional structure of royal influence, royal institutions and constitutional prerogatives a political irrelevance. The culture of British monarchy lives on – a fact amply evident in the popular response to the death of Prince Philip, who shared with the Queen a lifetime of change.

Richard Overy is a historian, author, and honorary professor of history at the University of Exeter. His latest book is Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931–1945 (Allen Lane, 2021)


This article appeared in BBC History Magazine's 'The Queen' Special Edition, republished in 2022


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