BEYOND the sometimes grating obituaries and pending obsequies, the demise last week of the British monarch has sparked a more interesting conversation in nations still constitutionally wedded to a deservedly obsolete empire.
The shock and dismay over the demise of a nonagenarian can more or less be dismissed as hyperbole. Sure, Elizabeth II wasn’t on her deathbed when she gave the obligatory nod to her 15th prime minister earlier last week — and it may be a mite cruel to claim that endorsing Liz Truss proved to be the final straw.
It was well known that the relevant institutions had long been prepared for the biological imperative, and instantly kicked into mourning mode as soon as it was advised that London Bridge was down — the widely recognised code for an inevitable demise. In fact, there was an early warning: as many of us instantly suspected, chances are the queen had already passed on by the time Buckingham Palace declared that she was comfortable and under medical supervision at Balmoral.
The aftermath is well-documented, although the speed with which republican feelings surfaced in many of the 14 nations that still haven’t completely cast off the shadow of colonialism might have caused some surprise. The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand, both republicans, declared that now wasn’t the time to talk about constitutional change, but more than one Caribbean state flagged its inclination to follow quickly in the footsteps of Barbados, which became a republic last year — at a ceremony where King Charles III, still a prince at the time, acknowledged “the appalling atrocity of slavery”.
There’s a reckoning Britain isn’t quite prepared for.
That’s commendable, even if it fell short of recognising the wealth accumulated by a select few British families, including his ancestors, from the slave trade, let alone the economic depredations inflicted on the colonies after the abolition of slavery. The so-called Commonwealth has always been something of a travesty, given that the transfer of wealth was invariably unidirectional. There was nothing ‘common’ about it even after most of the colonies opted for independence.
Elizabeth was never an empress, as the empire had already substantially receded by the time she inherited her father’s crown in 1952. But the African colonies remained intact, and her majesty presided over the brutal repression of the rebellion in Kenya, insurgencies in Malaya and Oman, and the British side of the violence in Northern Ireland.
It’s easy to claim that the queen wasn’t responsible for any of this. It was ‘her majesty’s governments’ that set and carried out policies, including foreign policy, and her job was merely to smile and nod, and to meet and greet prominent visitors from near and far, including a number of tyrants, without betraying her emotions. That’s where her much remarked-upon dedication to her ‘job’ and sense of ‘duty’ come in, evidently. Occasional instances of humour — which never veered into the kind of racism or classism that her husband periodically exhibited — were invariably pounced upon as evidence of her charm as just another human being.
Which is all very well, but fails to explain her privileged status, based on little more than an accident of birth. The monarchy sits at the apex of a hierarchical society where feudalism has been superseded but also incorporated by the capitalism that followed. Her (and now his) majesty’s loyal opposition has arguably trumped the government in its determination to kowtow to the established order — and those questioning it are being taken into custody. That’s as far as free speech goes before cancel culture steps in.
Its most fervent defenders often forget, or simply don’t know, that Windsor Castle wasn’t named after the ruling family. It was the other way around, more or less. Until 1917, the dynasty was known as the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. That year, during World War I, a German aircraft known as the Gotha G.IV began bombing London, which prompted a name change.
The German connection didn’t go away, though. Edward VIII, who succeeded George V, had to be cast aside not only due to his infatuation with an American divorcee, but because both he and she were enamoured of a German dictator by the name of Adolf Hitler. Images of the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret practising the Nazi salute at the behest of their uncle, with their mother proudly looking on, emerged some years ago. It would be unfair to hold that against the late queen, but it’s worth noting that many of her husband’s relatives were excluded from their wedding in 1947 because of their Nazi links.
The pomp and pageantry being exhibited in Britain today, leading to next Monday’s funeral, exceeds any show that the remaining European monarchies might put up. Their ruling heads are also a travesty, but it might take Britain’s eventual exit from the royal zone to disrupt the continent’s infatuation with crowned heads of state.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2022