Britannia Rule The Waves, Britons Never Never Shall Be Slaves... Just Enslavers

A lifelong anti-monarchist, I’ve found all the media coverage of the Queen Elizabeth’s death offensive and repulsive— offensive and repulsive that the media outlets are doing it and offensive and repulsive that the audience appears to want it. But there is one bright-spot… coverage is beginning to turn to the idea of former colonies finally turning against the monarchy. Mike Cherney, reporting from Australia, and Paul Vieira, reporting from Canada, covered the subject for the Wall Street Journal this morning. Even earlier this morning, NPR had reminded its listeners that colonialism’s scars linger and that “many note the enslavement, violence and theft that defined imperial rule, and they find it difficult to separate the individual from the institution and its history. Moses Ochonu, a professor of African studies at Vanderbilt University, told NPR… [that] ‘There is a sense in which Britain has never fully accounted for its crimes.’… [T]he queen's death has also reminded many people of the lack of reparations to former colonies.”

Cherney and Vieira reported that her death “could hasten efforts by some countries to reassess their relationship with the British Crown, and provide momentum to activists who have long argued that their nations shouldn’t have a foreign ruler as head of state… [R]epublican campaigners have an opportunity to argue their position without being seen as insulting a well-liked queen. Even before the queen’s death, some countries had signaled that their time with the monarchy, a relationship that originated with colonialism, should end. Last year, Barbados became the first country in about 30 years to ditch the monarchy. Several other Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, are preparing to sever ties. In an interview published Sunday, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, told British television network ITV News that he wants to hold a referendum on his country becoming a republic, possibly within three years.”

A poll published in April from the Angus Reid Institute indicated nearly 60% of Canadians supported moves by countries such as Barbados and Jamaica to cut ties with the British monarchy. And half of Canadians said they didn’t think their country should continue as a constitutional monarchy for coming generations.
…The debate has intensified in Australia, where voters in 1999 rejected a constitutional amendment to abolish the monarchy. Recent polls have shown more Australians support establishing a republic than keeping the monarchy, though many are undecided. Australia’s center-left prime minister, Anthony Albanese, refocused public attention on the issue when he appointed an assistant minister for the republic after winning an election in May.
…Until the 1980s, many Australian court decisions could still be appealed to the U.K. The governor-general, the monarch’s representative, still has certain powers, such as issuing a writ, or legal ruling, ordering a general election. The power is exercised on the advice of Australian ministers, but in some circumstances the governor-general is considered to have the power to act independently. Controversially, the governor-general dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970s.
The monarchy’s days in Australia appear to be numbered, said Cindy McCreery, an expert in monarchy and colonialism at the University of Sydney. Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 visit to Australia, the first by a sitting British monarch, drew massive crowds at a time when many Australians had a personal connection to the U.K. But fewer Australians today have that affinity, as many were either born in Australia or have migrated from other countries, she said.

Yesterday, the NY Times published an OpEd by British journalist and author Hari Kunzru, scoffing at and rejecting the way the media refers to the goings on in the monarchy as something akin to “the life of the nation.” He wrote unsympathetically that “many Britons mourn the nation’s lost imperial grandeur, and for them the pageantry of monarchy and Elizabeth’s presence as its leading player have been a balm for the ache of a changing world. The British elite have always understood that the monarchy is a screen onto which the people project their own fantasies, and Elizabeth’s greatest asset as queen was her blankness. She liked dogs and horses, and rarely betrayed strong emotions. She seemed to accept that her role was to be shown things, so very many things: factories and ships and tanks and local customs and types of cheese and the right way to tie the traditional garment, to receive bouquets of flowers from small curtsying girls, and in return never to appear bored or irritated by what was surely often a boring public role.”

The queen bridged the colonial and post-colonial eras. But for those of us who have a complicated relationship to Britain’s imperial past, the continuity represented by Elizabeth was not an unmitigated good. My father’s side of our family was made up of staunch Indian nationalists who worked for the end of imperial rule in 1947. Like many other people around the world whose families fought the British Empire, I reject its mythology of benevolence and enlightenment, and find the royal demand for deference repugnant.
Elizabeth was queen when British officers tortured Kenyans during the May May uprising. She was queen when troops fired one civilians in Northern Ireland. She spent a lifetime smiling and waving at cheering native people around the world, a sort of living ghost of a system of rapacious and bloodthirsty extraction. Throughout that lifetime, the British media enthusiastically reported on royal tours of the newly independent countries of the Commonwealth, dwelling on exotic dances for the white queen and cargo cults devoted to her consort.
My hope is that as the screen of Elizabeth falls away, Britons may find it easier to recognize the unhealthiness of a dependency on imperial nostalgia for self-esteem. Despite his pledge to continue his mother’s legacy, the new King Charles III will struggle to be such a blank screen for the projections of his people.
He is widely disliked because of his treatment of his wife Diana. Unlike his mother, he is known to be a man of opinions. His “black spider” memos, handwritten letters and notes given to government ministers on topics from agriculture to architecture, have led to concerns that, as a ruler, he will be tempted to overstep the strict constitutional bounds of the monarchy and dabble in politics. He ascends the throne in an age of unprecedented media scrutiny, and his private life has been fodder for decades of public gossip. And he, unlike his mother, does not represent unbroken continuity with Empire.
Of course there has always been an anti-royalist tradition in Britain.
She ain’t no human being,” sang the Sex Pistols back in the Jubilee Year, earning a ban from the BBC for lèse-majesté. Derek Jarman’s visionary film Jubilee [up top] imagined the first Queen Elizabeth transported by her court magician from 1589 to an apocalyptic contemporary London, where she sees her namesake mugged for her crown. For every Briton who believes that the bedrock of the nation is the monarchy and the hierarchy it authorizes, there’s another who will remind you that the billionaire Windsors changed their name from the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha only during the awkwardness of the First World War.
“There is no future in England’s dreaming,” warned the Sex Pistols. It’s usually taken to be an expression of nihilism and despair at living in country so shackled by its past. As I turn over the coin on my desk, I hope that with the death of Elizabeth II, who performed the ceremonies of the past so well, her subjects will start to dream of the future once again.