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Elizabeth II, the Global Icon

Will the British monarchy retain its soft power?

15 September 2022

Queen Elizabeth II, the UK’s longest-serving monarch died in the Balmoral Castle, her summer retreat in Scotland, at the age of 96, leaving not just Britain but many parts of the world in mourning. The death of the Queen set in motion a synchronized procedure, for which the queen herself, the palace, and the government had long  . While this protocol for what occurs in the event of the Queen’s death has been set since the 1960s, leaked documents by Politico in September 2021, exposed fresh particulars about the government’s plans: the so-called “Operation London Bridge”. Royal family members are usually given the name of a bridge to be utilized as a code word in the event of their passing. According to Politico, the Queen’s death would activate a ‘call cascade’, informing “the prime minister [currently Liz Truss], the cabinet and a number of the most senior ministers and officials. The PM [Truss] will be informed by the queen’s private secretary, who will also tell the Privy Council Office, which coordinates government work on behalf of the monarch.”[1] The plan further laid out the details on informing local authorities, specific British media outlets and foreign governments. Another plan, Operation Unicorn, also took place in tandem with Operation London Bridge. As the Guardian explained, Operation Unicorn indicated that “her coffin will temporarily rest at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, having been taken there by road two days after her death.”[2]


Having such an accurately choreographed and meticulous procedure in place for death of the head of state validates the importance of the smooth transition of power within the British monarchy, yet also substantiates the notion of British tradition. For many, the Queen was a figure, who embodied Britain and is deeply rooted within the nation’s identity and even within its economic and social well-being. And this resembled her iconography.


Elizabeth II as Queen

Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-reigning monarch in British history. She became queen on February 6, 1952, and was crowned on June 2, 1953. Elizabeth, nicknamed Lilibet, ascension to the throne was unexpected. Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, became King after his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Spencer in 1936.[3] On February 6, 1952 King George VI died in his sleep, while Elizabeth was in Kenya and had to return home to assume her position as Queen.[4]

Elizabeth had an extraordinary life, from a young girl who was not intended to be Queen to an iconic and celebrated figure, whose reign had witnessed greatest developments and changes in almost all spheres.


Aged 14, Elizabeth II made her first radio broadcast in 1940 on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, recording a message of support for young people affected by the war in Europe, particularly those being evacuated from their homes.[5] Moreover, during World War II, the princess was able to convince her father to permit her to serve her country and was able to volunteer in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. She became a driver and trained in auto mechanics. “It was a pioneering move: Not only was she the first member of her family ever to serve in the military, but the sight of a woman taking apart engines and changing tires signaled a sea change in social and gender roles that would continue throughout the future Queen’s lifetime.”[6] 

The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh were married on November 20, 1947 in Westminster Abbey and notably celebrated 70 years of marriage in 2017. As a monarch, the Queen was patron of more than 500 organizations and her face has been on coins of 35 countries. She owned more than 30 corgis and dorgis during her reign. She has been served by 15 UK prime ministers and saw 14 presidents of the US throughout her reign.[7]


Most importantly, according to Forbes, over the course of her reign, Queen Elizabeth has been perceived as a force of stability. When she became Queen, her calm aura as well peaceful approach to her new role provided the people with what was needed at that time, since the nation was emerging from a chaotic period. However, she was able to maintain such stability along her reign when confronted with any new crises descended on it, whether political economic, or even during pandemics. [8] In instances, where the need for the royal family has been questioned from the public, the stability brought by the Queen was seen as essential and necessary.


Elizabeth II and her continuous Soft Power


"I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong” [9], delivering this line on her 21st birthday was clear indication of how Elizabeth values the notion of being a public servant and hence the essence of her reign.


Being on the throne for 70 years, Elizabeth was able to combine two roles; mainly the role of head of state, as well as head of the nation.

As head of state in the UK, the monarch is constitutionally required to follow the advice of the government and has several responsibilities among which include: “to appoint the Prime Minister, and all the other ministers; to open new sessions of parliament; and to give royal assent to bills passed by parliament, signifying that they have become law.”[10] Therefore, an integral reason for the success of Elizabeth’s reign was that she was able to maintain public political neutrality and not officially intervene in major political decisions by the government.

As a head of nation, on the other hand, the Queen acts as a focus for “national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognizes success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.”[11] This notion of stability and continuity, as previously mentioned, was another reason for Elizabeth II success as a Queen. While her role was perceived as ceremonial, it didn’t mean that her influence was minimal.


One example of that influence could be perceived in her weekly confidential audiences with her prime ministers. Due to her longer experience of public affairs than any of them, audiences with the Queen may had an effect on the views of her prime ministers.[12] Moreover, Elizabeth II aimed to style herself as a figure be associated with, yet also sympathetic to the whole of UK. Therefore, her unifying power in this regard while it was soft, it was real. Elizabeth II never acknowledged to feeling more English than Scottish, or even any less a figure for the Northern Irish than the Welsh.[13] The Queen made a State Visit to Ireland in 2012, the first time a reigning British Monarch has visited the country since its separation from the United Kingdom. During that famous visit, she shook the hand of Martin McGuinness, one of the republicans most associated with the groups behind the past violence.[14] “She was a unifying force, wielding her soft power delicately and discreetly with the singular aim of keeping together the Union and the vestiges of the Empire, the Commonwealth.”[15]


Queen Elizabeth was not only the monarch of the UK, but also of fourteen other states, which include Canada, as well as others across the Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean, which are known as the Commonwealth realms. It is important to note that they are distinct from the Commonwealth of Nations, a group of 56 countries that were once part of the British Empire but most of which are not still subjects of the Queen. Inheriting the title of Head of The Commonwealth from her father, she intended to embrace it, which is why she was “credited with the managed decline of the empire. She retained her international footprint and reinforced it by traveling more than any of her predecessors.”[16]


The Queen held also the title of "Defender of Faith and Supreme governor of the Church of England” and practiced her faith publicly. She went to mass every Sunday and was always present in any religious occasion. She regularly testified to her faith and the place of God in her life in almost all of her speeches.[17] This has made her a religious symbol that embodies values cherished by the British people.


Another key indicator of her soft influence is that Queen Elizabeth understood the power of the media from an early age. In 1953 she requested that her coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey to be broadcasted live. She always stressed upon that ‘you have to be seen to be believed.’ “Television gave her a bigger audience and when color was introduced, she wore brighter shades so she would stand out”[18]. She embraced the notion of the so-called "walkabouts”, where she would appear in the media amongst the people[19]. Most importantly, the internet has provided her with another channel of connectivity and affinity with British public. She maintained a social media presence, aiming to be part of and consequently affect the daily lives of the people.


Hence, Elizabeth II was iconic, because she was able to recognize the importance of soft power. She was able to remain impartial politically and, providing in many instances a safe haven to the most notable political figures within the government, yet she was able to provide the sense of unity and stability to the public by establishing and maintaining ways of being connected to the people. Her ‘soft impact’ has not just affected the British public, but she was able to establish footprints within the international realm.

Elizabeth II and the MENA Public

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the signs of public grief or even interest in her death differed across the Middle East. For some, it was just news that they came across on their feed without having further contemplation regarding the matter. For others, they mourned the death of a Queen, who was recognized as an inspiring figure and friend of the region and its people. For many leaders in the region, her passing marks a sad ending to a long history of friendship, since the earliest days of her reign. The Queen was acknowledged by many as the representation of the bond between the region and the UK. On the other hand, for some, her death was actually a reminder of the British colonial actions, which “drew much of the region’s borders and laid the groundwork for many of its modern conflicts.”[20]  This shows that the passing of Elizabeth II has steered a public debate within the Arab public, demonstrating the significant and highly distinctive symbol she represents not just within Britain but beyond.



According to Professor Garton Ash of Oxford: “there is probably never going to be an occasion in which another British figure is so mourned globally… It is in some way a last moment of British greatness.”[21]

On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. During his first address to Parliament, King Charles vowed to uphold "the precious principles of constitutional governance”, following the example of ‘selfless’ duty as set by his late mother’[22]. The question however rather remains whether he will be able to fill the shoes of his beloved mother, while creating his own way to connect to the people and reshaping the public support for the British monarchy.

[1] Wickham, A. (2022, September 9). Britain's plan for when queen Elizabeth II dies. POLITICO. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.politico.eu/article/queen-elizabeth-death-plan-britain-operation-london-bridge/

[2] Guardian News and Media. (2022, September 8). Operation unicorn: What happens after the Queen's death in Scotland? The Guardian. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/sep/08/operation-unicorn-plans-if-queen-dies-scotland

[3] II, M. M. (2022, September 8). When did queen Elizabeth II become Queen? Time. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://time.com/6211771/when-did-queen-elizabeth-ii-become-queen/

[4] ibid

[5] Independent Digital News and Media. (2022, September 13). 70 facts you probably didn't know about queen Elizabeth II. The Independent. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/royal-family/queen-elizabth-facts-2022-b2165459.html?amp

[6] Blakemore, E. (2022, September 12). How queen Elizabeth embraced new technologies during her reign. History. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/how-queen-elizabeth-embraced-new-technologies-during-her-reign

[7] Independent Digital News and Media. (2022, September 13). 70 facts you probably didn't know about queen Elizabeth II.

[8] Flows, C. (2015, September 10). Queen Elizabeth II: Six decades of stability and admiration. Forbes. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/09/10/queen-elizabeth-ii-six-decades-of-stability-and-admiration/

[9] Connie.fisher. (2016, March 31). A speech by the queen on her 21st birthday, 1947. The Royal Family. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.royal.uk/21st-birthday-speech-21-april-1947

[10]Ucl. (2022, April 20). What is the role of the monarchy? The Constitution Unit. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/explainers/what-role-monarchy

[11] ibid

[12] Guardian News and Media. (2022, September 9). How the Queen's constitutional role shifted over her reign. The Guardian. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/sep/09/queen-elizabeth-constitutional-role#_=_

[13] Robertson, N. (2022, September 11). How the queen's soft power has helped keep the United Kingdom together. CNN. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/11/europe/united-kingdom-queen-soft-power-intl-cmd-gbr/index.html


[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] Foster, M. (2022, September 12). TV, travel, Walkabouts: How the queen stayed relevant. CNN. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/12/europe/monarchy-modernizing-queen-relevant-intl-cmd-gbr/index.html

[17] Supertino, G. (2022, September 11). Elizabeth II, devoted and devout 'defender of the faith'. Le Monde.fr. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.lemonde.fr/en/religions/article/2022/09/11/elizabeth-ii-devoted-and-devout-defender-of-the-faith_5996526_63.html


[18] Foster, M. (2022, September 12). TV, travel, Walkabouts: How the queen stayed relevant.

[19] ibid

[20] Al-Awsat, A. (2222, November 9). 'I cannot mourn': Former colonies conflicted over the queen. awsat. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/3867561/%E2%80%98i-cannot-mourn%E2%80%99-former-colonies-conflicted-over-queen

[21] Landler, M. (2022, September 10). Queen's death leaves U.K. grappling with its sense of national identity. The New York Times. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/10/world/europe/queen-elizabeth-uk-identity.html

[22] India, P. T. of. (2022, September 12). Darling late mother set example of selfless duty: Britain's king charles. Business Standard. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/darling-late-mother-set-example-of-selfless-duty-britain-s-king-charles-122091200681_1.html