An era ends: “ane end of ane auld sang”

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Molly Pollock weaves her way through some of the events the last 70 years. A lot of it had nothing to do with the late Queen.

On 6th February 1952 the sombre voice of a wireless announcer informed that King George VI had died. The 56 year old King had failed to recover from a lung operation, and died in his sleep at the royal estate at Sandringham. King George VI, the second son of King George V, ascended to the throne in 1936 after his older brother, King Edward VIII, voluntarily abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. That abdication, thrust Edward’s brother with his speech impediment which he had worked hard to overcome for his radio broadcasts during the war, into a role he had never anticipated inheriting. The abdication made a huge impression on the lives of the Queen mother and the late Queen and no doubt underpinned their determination to carry out their royal duties to their best abilities throughout their lives.

On the death of her father the 25 year old Queen was in Kenya with her husband, Philip Mountbatten, a distant cousin, whom she had married on November 20, 1947, in Westminster Abbey. A year later her son Prince Charles, now King Charles III, was born.

As Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Greens, in his speech in the Scottish Parliament yesterday (Monday) said about the death of Queen Elizabeth: “It is also a time to reflect on the change the Queen witnessed during such a long reign.” So let’s take a fly-through of just a few of the changes and major events of the last 70 years. Apologies for all those omitted.

Hope and optimism

The Queen’s accession to the throne and coronation in June 1953 was widely regarded as heralding a new Elizabethan age – a promotion that played less well in Scotland where a debate raged over E2RII branding when Scotland had never previously had an Elizabeth as queen.

But there was undoubtedly a new feeling of hope and optimism in the air. The war was over, and though rationing and bombed buildings remained the worst was widely seen as behind the country and its people, and future brightness beckoned. An era had ended and a new one begun. Yet few at the time probably realised how long Queen Elizabeth’s reign would last, and what changes would come about during it, though its more brutal nature was heralded by the dropping of nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the subsequent nuclear race.

The old League of Nations was dissolved, its failure to prevent World War II discredited the organisation, It was replaced by the United Nations, a body which remains to this day and of which nearly all countries in the world are members.

Colonialism ending

Colonies took advantage of the new era to seek independence and new countries appeared on maps. In the decades after World War II, many countries across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the Pacific gained their independence, bringing an end to an age of colonialism in which mostly European empires ruled over nearly a third of the world’s population. In 1946, there were 35 member states in the United Nations, by 1970 membership had increased to 127. Today it is the largest intergovernmental organisation in the world, with a current membership of 193 member states and two permanent non-member observer states – Palestine and Vatican City/Holy See.

WWII was over but the Korean war trundled on until an armistice in July 1953, leaving the two Koreas divided and at odds. Then came the Vietnam war. Three years into the new Queen’s reign and the Soviet Union crushed a revolution in Hungary and then came the Suez crisis brought about by Britain, France, and Israel invading Egypt in a bid to retake the strategic Suez Canal. The cold war intensified as did the pursuit of technology on the ground and in space with the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin the first human in space and moon landings by US Apollo 11 astronauts in July 1969 with Neil Armstrong the first person to walk on the moon. Mir and Skylab brought about humans living in space, followed by the International Space Station in use by astronauts from the US, Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada.

The 1960s also brought the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has come to nuclear war, posing a huge test for President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was assassinated the following year. Who organised and carried out the assassination is still being debated.

Fall of the Berlin Wall and break-up of Soviet Union

In 1972, US President Richard Nixon caused ripples around the world when, in an effort to improve relations between the two countries, he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit mainland China. Nixon later faced impeachment by Congress over the Watergate affair when it was discovered the president had participated in efforts to cover up criminal activity. Nixon resigned from office in August 1974 and his vice president, Gerald Ford, took over.

The cold war stuttered to an end with the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev, who died recently, attempting reform with glasnost and perestroika. Poland saw the formation of Solidarity, whilst in 1989 East and West Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Communist Party hard-liners mounted a failed coup to overthrow Gorbachev, and on Boxing Day, 1991, the Soviet Union was officially disbanded into its constituent republics, a break-up which Putin has in recent months been attempting to reverse with his war on Ukraine.

1989 also saw another atrocity when nearly one million students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square over poverty, rising, prices, economic reforms and government corruption. When protesters refused to leave, troops opened fire, killing hundreds—perhaps thousands—of civilians. Five years later ethnic tensions erupted into genocide in Rwanda with more than eight hundred thousand Rwandans killed in three months. Further atrocities occurred in the former Yugoslavia over ethnic and religious tensions, eventually splitting into independent countries. But there was much better news when South Africa held its first free and fair elections and Nelson Mandela, leader of the ANC who had spent twenty-seven years in jail for protesting apartheid, became the country’s first Black president.

Into the second decade of the 2000s and the Arab spring raised hopes of more democracy in Tunisia and the Middle east, but hopes faded fairly swiftly with most ruling power structures remaining and few reforms taking place.

‘Not in my name’

September 2001 brought atrocity to the west when four hijacked planes were used as weapons to kill 2,977 people in the US. The attacks were instrumental in the United States launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is remembered by many for his support of the Iraq war, with millions of people across Britain demonstrating in ‘Not in my name’ marches.

In The UK the 1970s were defined by power struggles between government and trade unions. It started with the miners and went on from there, the 3 day week brought in to save electricity during an energy crisis. To add to this in 1973 there was a global oil crisis brought about by Arab countries embargoing oil supplies to countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. It was in the 1970s too that oil was discovered in the North Sea, manna from heaven for all the UK’s dire economic ills. Rather than create an oil fund as Norway did UK governments used the proceeds to prop up the economy mainly in London and the south east while Scotland continued to suffer.

A paragraph from the McCrone report, on oil in an independent Scotland – a report long hidden from view.

In 1973 the UK joined the European Economic Community. In 1992 twelve European countries, including the UK, signed the Maastricht Treaty, which sought to create a more integrated Europe. Rebranded as the European Union, the EU is based on four freedoms: free movement of people, goods, services, and money. Persuaded by Brexiters who manipulated information and widely promoted lies, the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum although Scotland voted by a large majority to remain. The UK ceased to be an EU member state on 31st January 2020.

Then there was yet another war – the Falklands war in 1982 which many believe Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher instigated to improve her flagging popularity at home.

Devolution at last

1999 saw the opening of Scotland’s devolved parliament – long in being delivered after the 1979 referendum debacle. Initially the parliament took over the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland until its new controversial premises were competed within the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the foot of the Royal Mile and opposite the Palace of Holyrood House. Construction of the building, designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles who died before its completion, commenced in June 1999 with MSPs holding their first debate in the new building on 7 September 2004. Queen Elizabeth formally opened the new parliament building the following October.

Technological advances were to play a huge part in the new era. The computer was part of these technological developments and came into its own with the development of transistors, programmable computers and programming languages. From taking up the space of a room computers shrank dramatically with Word processors on most office desks by the 1980s. Punched cards gave way to paper tape, magnetic tape, floppy disks and hard disks. An unimagined home-computer boom took place spearheaded by the Apple II, Clive Sinclair’s ZX80 and the Commodore PET. I’ve no idea where the fondness for fruit names came from, but I remember cutting my technological teeth on two Apricots, both with minute screens of flickering and badly formed green characters on a black background. There were no images but a simple search function of a small number of records was possible. We are all aware how computers have developed since then, in various forms (desktop, tablet, phone, games consols) and how their applications and what we can do and see on them has mushroomed with the internet and streaming facilities. The much heralded and feared Millennium bug came to nothing and come the 2000s our computers continued to operate.

More improvements

As a country we’ve been through Americanisation, globalisation, the rise of China, more despots and dictators, terrorism, 9/11, the spread of nuclear weapons, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, between the haves and have-nots. We had troubles in Northern Ireland and bombings both there and on the UK mainland. The Good Friday Agreement brokered to bring about peace now seems under pressure from the new Tory government.

While health improved under our new welfare state and NHS and new procedures such as organ transplants became more common, new technologies have made it easier to detect problems and new vaccines have saved the lives of millions. Public health improved dramatically, with average global life expectancy jumping from 46 to 72 years between 1950 and 2015. Nevertheless new illnesses and viruses have set challenges, and in recent years in the UK life expectancy has started to decline. Recently Covid 19 locked down countries and set mass vaccination programmes in place across much of the world. Although daily life has returned to something like normal, Covid remains, infecting and killing.

The hole in the ozone layer which became a topic of conversation a few decades ago has now become concern for the future of the planet as temperatures increase, icecaps melt, sea levels rise and increasingly unusual climatic conditions cause droughts, floods, heavy snowfalls and destructive storms. The targets of the Kyoto and Paris agreements largely haven’t been met and the present UK government looks as if it is turning its back on climate change measures to return to the days of increasing emissions.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at COP26 in Glasgow with Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives. The FM took an active part in the conference, holding discussions with many over ways to address climate catastrophe.

Then there was television which became more widely available at the start of the Queen’s reign. Many households had purchased a new-fangled television set in 1953 to watch the coronation of the new Queen. Nine inch screen, black and white image which flickered and scrolled. BBC announcers – Sylvia Peters and Falkland Islands born McDonald Hobley are two that come to mind – wore evening dress, though there was a rumour that, for the men at least, that was only from the waist up as that was all that was shown on screens.

Reach of the British monarchy

The British royal family reigned over more territories and people than any other monarchy in history. Fourteen former colonies retain the British sovereign as their head of state. But in these countries, the death of the Queen has prompted movements intent on stripping away the vestiges of colonialism. The Queen was often seen as the glue that held Britain and the Commonwealth together. Is it another case of après moi le déluge – a phrase attributed to Louis XV of France – when a person’s leaving predicts disaster or chaos after their departure?

Josip Broz Tito is said to have presciently predicted something similar about Yugoslavia after his departure believing he was the only one who could hold its disparate parts together.

Some countries now want recompense for the years of colonialism and their suffering, others want their plundered riches, including their jewels, returned, others still have either decided to or are thinking of becoming republics, severing the links with the British crown. Antigua and Barbuda plan to hold a referendum on becoming a republic within the next three years. Barbados voted to remove the UK monarchy last year, and the ruling party in Jamaica has indicated it may follow.

A similar debate has simmered for years in Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada and Jamaica. Will these countries too see Queen Elizabeth’s death as the end of an era, an appropriate time to reassess and make changes to allow their countries to move forward in their own ways?

The world is now a different place

On a people to people level the UK became more accepting of gay rights with a transformation over the decades from coming out of the closet to same sex marriages being legal. The voting age in Scotland has been reduced to 16 for Holyrood elections allowing young folk to play their part in deciding the future of their country.

In the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign the world has become a very different place. Countries have changed, as have institutions, governments and people. The optimism of the early 1950s has gone, with the prevailing feeling in the UK of concern, of fear of what the future might bring with a new king and a new right wing government. We may no longer have rationing or, at present at least, a 3 day week brought about by fuel shortages, but Brexit has severely disrupted supply chains causing shortages of certain foodstuffs along with significantly rising prices. We are faced with a cost of living crisis the likes of which we haven’t had to face before and many are severely worried about being able to eat and heat their homes. Instead of moving forward we appear to be sliding rapidly backwards.

The world has changed, and in the UK that change doesn’t seem to have been for the better.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth, the only UK monarch many people have known, an era ends. To quote the Earl of Seafield at the end of the Scottish parliament’s last debate on the Treaty of Union, her death marks “ane end of ane auld sang”.

As Patrick Harvie said in the Scottish Parliament on Monday after referring to the continuity, stability and permanence the monarchy stood for:

“But in truth progress cannot be halted. It feels slow as we live it day by day but in time it is dramatic.”

An era has ended. An auld sang has ended. It is our decision on how we go forward with our lives in the era now unrolling.