How did the world change during Queen Elizabeth II's reign?
Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth II remained a constant presence in an era of vast social, technological and geopolitical transformation. Anna Whitelock charts an era in which Britain, but not its queen, changed beyond recognition...
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Never before has Britain changed so dramatically during the reign of one monarch. The second Elizabethan age was defined by unprecedented transformations in every facet of life, the effects of which rivalled those of the industrial revolution more than two centuries earlier. Queen Elizabeth II witnessed significant changes in society, technology, transport and geopolitics, which created what most people would recognise today as the modern British state. The very fact that the monarchy has survived and, indeed, thrived against this backdrop owes much to the late Queen and her constant, unchanging presence over 70 years.
Before the Queen’s coronation on 2 June 1953, few people owned a television. The decision to broadcast the ceremony live prompted many to buy their first set, and well over 20 million people in the UK watched Queen Elizabeth II being crowned at Westminster Abbey in London. The BBC, then the only national broadcaster, transmitted on just one (black-and-white) television channel and three radio stations. It approached the coronation filming with reverence and deference. The director general’s views were clear: “There ought to be an absolutely rigid policy that so far as the BBC is concerned [the royal family] can be guaranteed complete privacy.”
Over the following 69 years, the media changed beyond recognition. Countless terrestrial television channels are now available, plus many more via streaming subscriptions. At the same time, the media industry has become global, with rolling 24-hour news channels, newspapers viewed online, and social media posts visible almost anywhere on the globe. Much of this was made possible by the world wide web, just one key innovation in an age marked by rapid changes in communication. At the start of the Queen’s reign, communication was primarily via letters, telegrams and newspapers. Just two and a half decades later, in 1976, she sent her first email; she uploaded her first YouTube video in 2008, sent her first tweet in 2014, and uploaded her first Instagram post in 2019. By 2022, print newspapers reached just 24 per cent of the British public, down from 40 per cent just four years previously. Also by 2022, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube had all overtaken the BBC as the prime source of news for British teenagers.
Appliances of science
It’s not just in the realm of computer science that Britain has witnessed immense technological change over the past 70 years. In 1952, when Elizabeth came to the throne, only a small minority of homes had central heating, fridges, washing machines or telephones. There were just 2.5 million cars on the roads, and for most people owning such a vehicle was a distant aspiration. Today, most households own at least one car – there are 32.9 million on the roads.
The young Queen ruled over a less-populous, younger country. Of the UK’s 50.6 million people in 1953, 21.6 million were under the age of 30, and 8 million were 60 or older – a ratio of 2.7 to 1. The population has since grown to more than 68 million and also aged. The ratio of young to old is 1.4 to 1 and falling. This ageing society is another feature of the second Elizabethan age that increasingly puts pressure on the celebrated National Health Service (NHS) – which was just four years old in 1952.
Read more about the history behind each episode of The Crown season 5:
- The Crown S5 E1: ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’ and a second honeymoon
- The Crown S5 E2: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Norton’s book on Princess Diana
- The Crown S5 E3: exiled royals and the al-Fayeds
- The Crown S5 E4: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
- The Crown S5 E5 real history: ‘Camillagate’ tapes and a “war council” for the monarchy’s survival
- The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
- The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal education
Part of the explanation for the rise in life expectancy in the UK has been local scientific excellence. The discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953 by James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, together with Robert Edwards’ IVF (in vitro fertilisation) revolution, which lead to the birth of the first “test-tube baby” in 1978, played their part in changing the face of science, medicine, education and preventative treatments. The importance of these advances will never be forgotten, and these individuals proved themselves pioneers comparable to the great explorers and inventors of the Victorian period.
UK society has also become vastly more diverse year on year since 1952, when few Britons would have seen a non-white face in their daily life. Over the past seven decades, immigration has created a multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, and “Britishness” has declined concurrently as the default national identity. The instinctive, 1950s sense of British nationhood – forged through two world wars, a Protestant faith and an imperial project that elided any sense of internal UK differentiation – has come to an end. Now identities are more fragmented or multiple: many people in the UK consider themselves primarily Scottish, Welsh, English or even European.
The fact that London has a Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, and that the current cabinet – with its majority of women and individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds – is indicative of the scale of change. None of this was a possibility in 1952. Then, women comprised just 32 per cent of the employed population. Today, they make up 48 per cent of the workforce.
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The Queen joined that workforce herself during the Second World War when employed as a truck mechanic in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. More than 70 years later, in 2015, she noted the great strides that women have taken over the course of her reign during a speech to mark the centenary of the Women’s Institute. “In the modern world, the opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part in all areas of public life,” she observed.
Freedom and failure
The hierarchy and deference of the 1950s has given way to a more liberal or “permissive” society. Birth control, abortion reform and the Equal Pay Act 1970 all helped combat the gender inequality of the 1950s. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts between men; 46 years later, gay individuals won the right to marry in England, Scotland and Wales (though not until 2020 in Northern Ireland). Notwithstanding, gender equality and the battle for LGBTQ rights became huge issues in the latter years of the Queen’s reign.
Despite the optimism that bloomed at the time of the coronation, the past 70 years have been characterised by the relative decline of the UK, perhaps most markedly in its economy. “There is a lot of talk about the new Elizabethan age, but whether it will be implemented will depend on all ranks in industry,” Brigadier Ralph Rayner told parliament in 1952. “The British industrialist and merchant, if given half a chance, will wipe the floor with any other industrialist in the world. The British working man, if given a good lead, will certainly beat any other working man in the world.” Yet, misogyny aside, that wasn’t to be.
British business failed repeatedly to invest in infrastructure, or to innovate or market at the same rate as their American, Japanese or European competitors. So the “never had it so good” coronation boom years of full employment, high growth and low inflation could not be sustained. UK industry, management and labour relations have proved increasingly uncompetitive on a global stage, despite political rhetoric advocating, both politically and economically, “Global Britain”. The Elizabethan era has, overall, been defined by deindustrialisation and economic decline – though, of course, some individuals have become super rich.
In 1952, the UK was the world’s second-biggest economy, behind only the US, with a GDP of £247bn. At the start of September 2022, it was the world’s sixth biggest after the US, China, Japan, Germany and India. At the same time, the economies of continental Europe have grown from their low postwar base at a much faster pace than that of the UK.
When Elizabeth II assumed the throne, Winston Churchill was UK prime minister, Josef Stalin was leader of the Soviet Union, Harry Truman was US president, and Mao Zedong was the mainland Chinese leader. The Korean War was still being fought, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was little over two years old. The UK was just about to join the US and the Soviet Union as a nuclear power, with Churchill announcing the atomic bomb project a week after the coronation. Today the PRC is an emerging superpower with the second-largest economy in the world; the Soviet Union long ago disappeared from the geopolitical landscape; and the UK has transitioned to a “lesser power”.
To many, the UK’s global reputation was indelibly tarnished in the bloody aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But fantasies about a second Elizabethan age were already fading long before then. It’s hard to overstate the humiliation generated by the Suez crisis of 1956, when Britain, France and Israel conspired together in an unsuccessful attempt to wrench back control of the Suez Canal from Egypt.
The evolving empire
During her Christmas Day broadcast from 1953, Elizabeth II declared: “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace.” A month earlier, the Queen had set off with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, on a marathon tour of the Commonwealth nations lasting five-and-a-half months. Pathé newsreels back home showed the scenes of wild enthusiasm that greeted the royal couple wherever they went, from Bermuda to Gibraltar by way of Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and Uganda.
But the world was changing fast, and nowhere more obviously than in the empire. That process had begun in earnest when India became independent in 1947, five years before Elizabeth took the throne, but accelerated rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s. In the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign, 32 countries achieved independence from Britain. Hong Kong, the last major holding of the empire, was given back to China in 1997.
As the empire fractured, the Commonwealth rose. Under the Queen’s leadership, this global alliance grew from a group of eight founding nations in 1952 into a voluntary association of 56 independent countries comprising 2.5 billion people.
However, some commentators have argued that the benign face of the Queen disguised Britain’s complicated history of violence and bloody conflict, citing, for example, the brutal counterinsurgencies in what are now Kenya, Malaysia, Yemen and Cyprus in the latter days of the British empire. These imperial misdeeds have only belatedly led to a reckoning in the UK, with the government paying compensation to some victims of its colonial policies. The push by activists for the removal of statues, the revision of school curriculums glorifying Britain’s empire, and further calls for apologies and reparations demonstrates how the consequences of the rapid decolonisation of the first decades of the Elizabethan era are still reverberating.
Apologies and reparations
That said, the break-up of the empire could have been more rancorous without the Queen’s presence. Throughout Britain’s transition from an empire to post-imperial power, she made it clear that she was determined to build a new relationship with Britain’s old imperial possessions – based on friendship rather than post-imperial bitterness. In 1961 she visited Ghana and danced with President Kwame Nkrumah, who had been one of Africa’s most prominent anti-colonial leaders and had been briefly imprisoned by the British.
Certainly, Elizabeth defined this era of unprecedented global transformation by becoming a rare unifying figure; notably, she retained the affection of Commonwealth leaders even when they were hotly opposed to her government’s policies. As long as she was alive, many knotty issues were shelved; now she has died there will be much to reappraise. The Commonwealth must plot a new path and decide where its future lies. The organisation has grown of late, welcoming countries that had never actually been under British rule. It’s one of the few groups in which mature and emerging economies come together with a common agenda. And there are obvious issues in which it could still play a part – climate change and vaccine diplomacy being two examples.
The final years of the new Elizabethan age saw a movement among Caribbean nations to remove the Queen as the titular head of state and to press for reparations for the abuses of the colonial era. The process was accelerated when Barbados became a republic in 2021. Belize has announced a constitutional review of the question, while Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda have both indicated their intentions to become a republic.
A defining characteristic of the United Kingdom, throughout Elizabeth’s reign and today, remains the need to accept and define its changed position in the world. Back in 1962, former US secretary of state Dean Acheson noted in a speech, to the anger of the British press, that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. He suggested that the country was confused about its future identity – focused on its “special relationship” with the US one moment, then looking toward Europe or the Commonwealth to give it greater meaning and influence the next. These words ring as true today as they did then. Now, Britain is acutely uncertain about its place in the world and facing the repercussions of the scale and pace of change that has defined the second Elizabethan era.
As much as the Queen was a stabilising force for many people, the UK appears to be increasingly divided on geographic lines. Doubts have been growing about whether its four nations can hold together as a United Kingdom. There are growing calls for political change in Northern Ireland, and increased pressure post-Brexit for independence in Scotland, reflected in The Herald on Sunday’s headline above a picture of Charles: “Union’s Saviour or Last King of Scotland?”
Elizabeth II’s reign has encompassed the transformation of culture and class; rapid technological expansion and socio-political change; the end of deference and a distinctive sense of Britishness. Yet the Queen was successfully able to navigate these changes – embracing advances in technology and communication, while also representing a reassuring bastion of tradition and age old values and virtues. She was in the world of change but somehow at once apart from that world. US President Joe Biden described her as “a stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy”.
That constancy belied the epochal shift experienced by her country – the consequences of which are, with her death, only now coming into full view.
This article first appeared in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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