Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth while in Kenya, then a colonial possession still 11 years away from independence. The Mau Mau revolt against British rule was about to begin. Back home, Scotland had just helped return the Conservative and Unionist bloc to power, with the SNP polling 0.3%. Churchill’s new government included the first Minister for Welsh Affairs but even the Welsh Office was 12 years in the future. Scotland and Wales would get their own elected national institutions in the 47th year of the Queen’s reign, after more than a century of agitation. In 1952, the UK’s only devolved legislature was the sectarian stronghold of Stormont, gerrymandered out of Irish partition.
Today, 70 years later, we see the governance of the peripheries altered beyond recognition but that of the English core stuck in its ways. What changes there have been are notably often in a backwards direction. Examples include the present government’s ideologically driven views on electoral law, human rights, and the need for collective action. A broad consensus against regional parliaments and in favour of subservient local councils continues to characterise the most centralised country in western Europe. England delights in being different by being worse.
The end of a reign – and the start of a new one – is about change and continuity, combined in (as yet) unknown proportions. Royal titles are cascaded down the generations: if a plan to make Prince Edward the new Duke of Edinburgh comes to fruition, we may hear less about Wessex than we have since the Earl and Countess began their public duties in 1999. Amidst all the new roles, the accession has shone light on some of the oldest palace cobwebs, requiring oaths to be sworn to uphold religious settlements from centuries ago. Constitutional law and contemporary politics are revealed to be unhelpfully disconnected.
Times of transition often raise hopes that things will improve. Ideas discussed for decades that just didn’t fit the former mood can suddenly advance as debate opens up on what should shape the new era. A more ‘Scandinavian’ style of rule is the least of these demands; a more democratic way of choosing the head of state is the ultimate destination for many. If there is to be a monarchy, it should be transparently funded from taxation, not landholdings and investments that are judged public sector when advantageous and private sector when not. Royal exemptions from general legislation must end if no-one, truly, is above the law. These resets are both desirable and achievable over the next few years, given the political will. They are not enough. House of Lords reform needs to be completed, proportional representation introduced for all elections, and the dictatorship of Parliament ended by constitutional changes guaranteeing the rights of other elected bodies within their respective jurisdictions. A fairer England will be one where power, wealth and talent do not gravitate to London. There is only one way to ensure they do not: elected regional governments with the means to deliver for their voters. Wessex is ready to be one of those regions.
The House of Wessex began the process that created a single England, then a single Britain, and ultimately the British Empire. The reign of Elizabeth II saw the external colonies leave and the internal ones prepare to do so. Under her successor, will the wheel turn full circle as the process reaches its only stable conclusion, a large measure of self-government for all parts of these islands?