Here’s my commentary as a republican on the end of another Elizabethan age, commissioned by New Indian Express.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II has inevitably brought about wall-to-wall tributes across the media to a woman who has come to symbolise the notion of public service not just to Britain but around the world.
Peel back the emotional displays and rhetoric, however, and we can see the infantilising effect of monarchy in a democratic age, as well as the remnants of the entitlement that infects so many British attitudes.
While on a three month family tour of their “Southern African dominions” in 1947, princess Elizabeth addressed “all peoples in the British Commonwealth and Empire, wherever they live, whatever race they come from, and whatever language they speak’ by radio from Cape Town, on her 21st birthday.
Committing herself to the “noble motto” of her ancestors ‘I serve’, she declared that her “whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”.
Putting the war years behind her she called on her listeners to “go forward together with an unwavering faith… to make this ancient commonwealth, an even grander thing – more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world – than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers”.
Many would now query how ‘great’ the days of Empire had been, but she would certainly keep her part of the bargain so far as service was concerned. Meanwhile, the whole world around her moved on.
Only months later the British government passed the Independence of India Act. It would take another three years for India to formally shake off the trammels of Empire and establish itself as a secular republic. Some hackles may still rise on the subcontinent when people realise that the Kohinoor diamond, with its disputed provenance, will adorn the crown worn by the new king’s consort Camilla, at his forthcoming coronation.
Although Britain flexed its muscles in Palestine, Korea and Malaya during the 1950s gradually its world domination fell away as the queen’s long reign continued. A domino effect was inevitable once Britain was humiliated by General Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in 1956.
There was no waiting for Britain to accede to the desire for self-determination as the “wind of change” swept through Africa in the 1960s, and the monarch’s plenipotentiaries were despatched far and wide to run the Union Jack down flagpoles.
Even the 56 member Commonwealth of Nations has lost its British tag, and the new king will reign over only 15 territories, including the United Kingdom (UK).
But no amount of pomp and ceremony can disguise the fact that the UK is riven, and not just by the divisions caused by the disaster that Brexit has turned out to be.
In England alone less than 1 per cent of the population own and control more than half the land. The Crown owns a massive portfolio of properties, artworks and jewellery. Although since 1992 the queen has opted to pay tax on any personal earnings, the public purse shells out more than £86million a year through a Sovereign Grant to cover the royal family’s household, maintenance and travel expenses.
There is a huge and widening disparity between the richest 1 per cent of the population and the poorest, with poverty far greater in the north of England than among the Home Counties that surround the city of London.
Meanwhile the calls for Scottish independence get louder by the day, with another referendum promised next year. The Welsh Parliament has become increasingly self-assured and reluctant to kowtow to Westminster’s diktat. And on the island of Ireland, Sinn Fein, the republican party, is scheduled to become the biggest political party again, north and south.
One of the most notable achievements of the queen was her gracious acknowledgement in 2012 of Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former commander in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which in 1979, had assassinated her uncle, Earl Mountbatten, the architect of Partition in India.
McGuinness saw it as a significant contribution to the peace process. He called her a:
“remarkable woman.… I hold her in great esteem for doing something that can’t have been easy for her. I liked her courage in agreeing to meet me… I like her.”
A year earlier she had spoken of “the painful legacy” of Anglo-Irish relations in a conciliatory speech during a visit to Dublin, and when asked later about greeting McGuinness, her answer was typically British: “Of course, I shook his hand. It would be awkward not to.”
Her equanimity and her sense of humour were perhaps her most winning characteristics. She would need both to survive in the dysfunctional households she presided over, according to former palace official Malcolm Barker. In Courting Disaster, a 1990 book banned in Britain, he presented a hair-raising account of alleged corruption and sexual misconduct behind closed doors, including the promiscuity of a young prince Andrew. One of the less shocking incidents he recalls was the night a drunken page boy tumbled down stairs and floored the queen as she made her way to bed.
Elizabeth famously called 1992 her ‘annus horribilis’, after a fire at Windsor Castle, the divorce of two of her children, and Andrew Morton’s revelations in Diana: Her True Story that her son, then Prince of Wales and still married to Diana, was in a long-term extra-marital affair with a married Camilla Parker-Bowles.
But there were many other such years. In the late 1980s two of her cousins, reportedly dead, turned out to be alive. Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon had been consigned to the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in 1941, along with three other cousins, Etheldreda, Idonea and Rosemary Fane.
Just imagine what a difference it might have made to the lives so many if the royal family had acknowledged and accepted these women instead of locking them away.
More recently the scandal of Prince Andrew’s association with Jeffrey Epstein and under age girls would cost her dearly. But none of this appeared to dent her personal reputation, and she remained welcome and admired around the world.
Unlike her great-great grandmother Victoria, the Empress of India, who never visited the country, the queen made three trips. In 1961 she spent several weeks traveling the subcontinent with her husband. She was back in 1983 for a Commonwealth Summit.
During her final visit in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence she touched on one of the many massacres by British troops that punctuated the colonial days.
“[H]istory cannot be rewritten,” she said “however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”
Perhaps that might serve as a fitting epitaph for a woman who clearly touched the hearts of many, even those of us who would prefer to see the monarchy abolished.
Ed: This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.