Ever since Queen Elizabeth II passed away peacefully at a great age, the British public sphere has been engulfed by waves of cloying platitudes. On a seemingly interminable loop, we hear that she was the glue that held us together, a part of us that has been taken from us, and the only stable presence in our lives. What renders our social existence so fragile and unstable in the first place that only one woman, who we would never meet, could provide “continuity” and “reassurance”? You may not ask such questions, for the mildest dissent is immediately shut down. A handful of people have already been arrested merely for anti-monarchist placards or slogans.
Given the queen’s visibility and longevity, it is understandable that many Britons feel a sense of sadness at this passing, though only the very few who actually knew her will be able to mourn the private person. Yet, we are repeatedly instructed that this death is a profoundly significant moment not just for the whole country but the Commonwealth and the entire world.
Most denizens of the Commonwealth – Britain’s former colonies – live precarious existences of their own, many battling catastrophic floods or famines that are nowhere in the headlines. They are unlikely to be “reassured” by the existence of a distant queen or, frankly, troubled by her demise. Many vulnerable Britons, too, face far from peaceful illness and death this winter.
Self-absorbed grandstanding is perhaps to be expected from a British media not known for nurturing diversity of opinion in a country where large portraits of the queen are now plastered serially across billboards, bus stops, tube stations, malls, cinemas, and thoroughfares, accompanied by daily public ceremonies and costumed pageantry.
It is the kind of mandated devotional unanimity that the new King Charles III once described in relation to another, non-Western country as an “awful Soviet-style display”. The queen’s image now appears automatically on many workplace screen savers while, startlingly, many academics across the country have received instructions from their employers to either not use social media or to mind what they say.
The real success of such manufactured consensus is evidenced, however, by the emollient rhetoric emerging from quarters claiming to be not monarchist. “Whatever you think of the monarchy”, such declamations begin, followed by praise for the late monarch’s qualities on which we are all to agree: “duty”, “loyalty”, “grace”, “dignity” and “selfless service”.
When probing questions are asked, we are reminded not only of her “maternal” role for the nation but that she is a “mother and a grandmother”. Separating the “human” from the institution, and the “family” from the “monarchy” has long been a successful tactic in preventing searching scrutiny of the institution. Invited to get caught up in the human drama of marriages, births, divorces, feuds, and deaths, we fail to ask more fundamental questions. Whose interests, for instance, does monarchical “duty” ultimately serve?
However much we may delude ourselves with corgis and Paddington Bear, marmalade sandwiches and horses, we will never know the human being who wore the crown studded with colonial loot. Monarchy provided the only lens through which most had a necessarily curated access to Elizabeth II. She is unlikely to have wanted it any other way. Indeed, the very sense of “duty” and “selflessness” that she is lauded for required her to recede as a person and embody the institution. It is entirely incoherent to separate the queen from the Crown and, thereby, the British state.
With the end of Elizabeth’s reign, open criticism has been voiced – largely by denizens of former colonies from Ireland to Nigeria – of the Crown’s responsibility for colonisation, enslavement, indenture, extraction, dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and violence. It has also been pointed out that the royal family’s wealth is inextricably tied up with the projects of enslavement and colonisation even as the sources of royal riches remain shrouded in opacity.
Where the response is not outright denial, there is the suggestion that one can mourn the queen separately from the empire she headed as it disbanded slowly, though never entirely, from her accession onwards. One commentator believes her to be “the antithesis of stereotypes of Empire” and the sunny side of Britishness.
This is exactly how history gets airbrushed. In 1952, as the young Elizabeth, committed in her own words to “our great imperial family”, was informed at a safari lodge in Kenya that she had acceded to the throne, Britain had commenced a long and brutal counterinsurgency in that country, one that would see thousands of innocents jailed, tortured, and executed. This was not atypical of decolonisation, which was far from always gradual and peaceful.
The first years of her reign would also see tremendous suppression of anticolonialism in Cyprus, Malaya, and elsewhere. Through resistance, peaceful and violent, Britain was forced, colony by colony, to abandon the imperial project. Although she never distanced herself from either the British Empire or its atrocities, the queen is known to have accepted the reality of anticolonial nationalism – or, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called it, “winds of change”. This does not mean she gifted independence to subjugated states or that she eased them into nationhood.
As Britain’s ruling classes scrambled to control the narrative of the loss of imperial power, they produced the myth of decolonisation as a managed and planned process. Elizabeth II’s involvement was central to this myth and also in mediating between opposing groups like African nationalists and white settlers.
The “Commonwealth” to which she became deeply committed was not the antithesis of empire but part of the fudge by which the “great imperial family” overnight became a “Commonwealth of Nations” with the queen – and now Charles – at its head. This was not a retreat, the story goes, but a fulfilment of Britain’s original civilising mission.
The trouble with myths is that they prevent an honest reckoning with history or what Elizabeth II euphemised as “difficult episodes in our past” which she was clear should not be revisited. Such an attitude simply consolidates Britain’s ongoing imperial amnesia and tendency to praise the British Empire without acknowledging the many harmful consequences that still shape the lives of millions today. The descendants of the enslaved and the colonised are repeatedly exhorted to “move on from this painful legacy”, to use former Prime Minister David Cameron’s words.
As a recent open letter from Jamaicans to Prince William and Catherine during their Jubilee tour of the Caribbean noted, the late queen could have led a national reflection on this legacy, but failed to do so. The letter also observed that the present royal family are “direct beneficiaries” of historical wealth accumulation “including that stemming from the trafficking and enslavement of Africans”. This much is indisputable.
Far from opening the royal family’s wealth – inherited or otherwise – to scrutiny (astonishingly there appears to be no study of this topic), the queen “successfully lobbied the government to change a draft law in order to conceal her “embarrassing’ private wealth” from the public. The queen was also given a personal exemption from having her private estates searched for stolen or looted artefacts and her household remained exempt from laws that ban race and sex discrimination.
The precise extent of her personal wealth remains unclear although it is thought to run into hundreds of millions of pounds. Not all of the wealth is simply historical. Tellingly, the British monarchy gives itself the corporate moniker of The Firm. Like many other global corporations and despite all the patriotic hymning, it has offshore investments that avoid taxation. Charles III’s inheritance from his mother will also be exempt from inheritance tax.
The politics of gargantuan wealth is really the most important nettle to grasp in relation to the British monarchy and the queen who lately sat on its throne. Described by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as “only the string that ties the robber’s bundle”, the monarchy’s – and the royal family’s – ultimate service is to underline the entitlement of the rich and powerful to call the shots.
The pageantry and enforced reverence of “reigning” rather than “ruling” give plutocracy the legitimacy of “tradition”, even divine sanction of this entitlement. In continuation with the oldest forms of feudalism, the queen was one of the country’s largest private landowners. None of this is an “anachronism” for the British monarchy, which sits comfortably at the interface of old wealth and perfectly modern oligarchy while sprinkling doses of charity benevolently upon the people.
That said, those who announce themselves republicans should acknowledge that it is perfectly possible, indeed normative, to have elected heads of state and government while maintaining precisely as grotesquely unequal a society as in Britain. The American fascination with the British monarchy is in part explicable through the fact that a tiny number of multibillionaires, unanointed monarchs, own more than half that country’s wealth. If we want a more democratic and equal world, it is not just the British monarchy that must be abolished but plutocracy itself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.