Rest in peace

This week has seen momentous events for the UK. While prime ministers come and go, the Queen appeared to be a fixed reference point in time. However, she finally passed away this week and heralded a new start as we suddenly passed from the Elizabethan era to that of the Carolean monarchy.

The hope is this week will bring us all the chance to reflect on the situation and our mortality. Also, to forge a future beyond the political squabbles and embrace the real social and environmental challenges ahead.

I have often wondered what lies beneath the obvious official façade that is the monarchy. I have met the late Queen on two occasions and similarly the new King twice.  Brief conversations with both led me to wonder what they made of the situation. They were polite and easy to converse with. Yet, neither could say what they thought and rarely hear of what others really think, apart from those few they take into their confidence. Bathed in the smell of ‘fresh paint’, they must have surely craved views of the world as it is and not what was presented to them. It’s a strange world they inhabit.  I was also struck by the simple idea that they were, and are, ordinary people trapped in a world that is not of their making.

The future will bring Charles many challenges. Elizabeth was suddenly propelled onto the throne in 1952 at a time of severe austerity, with rationing and poor housing afflicting most of the people.  The conditions were not the ‘good old days’. She also had the worry of a conflict in Korea that threatened the possibility of expansion and a nuclear exchange in an arms race. There were other wars to come, but her reign was generally peaceful for the majority. Others suffered tragedy in conflicts that might have been avoided. The conditions in 1952 could hardly get much worse and everyone was full of hope and ready to build a better future.  There was a lot of building to do.

Those born at the start of her reign embraced the cause of peace. For many years, the leaders in which the Queen confided were ones who experienced war and served in the military or other ways. They wanted better things for their children.  When Thatcher came to power, this was the start of the old order fading.  Relating to the leaders after Callaghan must have been a challenge.

Now King Charles is also confronted by the prospect of people facing increased hardship and a precarious conflict in Ukraine that could spill into neighbouring countries and a nuclear exchange. It seems little has changed as the new era begins.

These are uncertain times and wise heads will be needed to navigate around the challenges.  Any idealistic idea of a naïve bucolic utopia, where everyone is equal, free and at peace, will have to be set aside for now. Instead, realism must prevail as we accept that a better future will be hard to reach. With severe social retrenchment happening now, and hope fading for many young people, we will need something solid to grasp onto together. This must include equality for all and a common purpose to ensure peace and a sustainable environment. Charles appears to understand this. He was keen to meet with students and researchers in my laboratory and discuss our applied environmental research some years ago. I know he will understand the technical challenges faced. Yet, despite his imposed political neutrality, he must still impress upon our leaders the urgency of sustainability.  Achieving this must also ensure fairness and equality in education to fully use the latent talents the UK possesses.

I wish him well.

The author, Mike Larkin, has retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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