Sep 15, 2022
No one embodied the British “stiff upper lip” or “keeping calm and carrying on” better than Queen Elizabeth II. In the wake of her death on Sept. 8 at the age of 96, it’s worth recalling that the values she personally projected of duty, honor, and a lifetime devoted to quiet service and charity have grown increasingly rare in modern-day British and Western societies. She also stayed out of partisan politics, to her credit, while focusing primarily on the interests of the country as a whole and not as a candy store ripe for exploitation and manipulation by a select few to their own personal, economic or political benefit. But none of these admirable qualities have assuaged the anger expressed by some who erroneously seem to view her as some sort of war criminal responsible for the worst aspects of Britain’s foreign policy.
“Cloud of colonialism hangs over Queen Elizabeth’s legacy in Africa,” headlined CNN. “Mixed feelings among some in Africa for Queen Elizabeth,” titled Reuters, citing Africans who spoke of “occupation”. “This commonwealth of nations, that wealth belongs to England. That wealth is something never shared in,” Bert Samuels, a member of the National Council on Reparations in Jamaica, told the Associated Press. A Pennsylvania liberal arts professor Tweeted, as reported by Newsweek: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”
It’s a mistake to think that Elizabeth had any control over British government policy, and it’s far too easy — not to mention grossly unfair — to lash out at her in the same way that some people yell at front-line customer service staff when they don’t like a store’s policies.
Elizabeth was along for the decolonization ride, which took place entirely under her reign. It was her father, King George VI, who began the process when he was advised by the British prime minister to appoint royal family member, Lord Louis Mountbatten, as the last viceroy of India for its transition to independence. So if Elizabeth is going to be associated with something over which she had no actual control, then it should be decolonization. Ultimately, it was World War II that sparked the disintegration of the British Empire, which was a political decision carried out by the government of the day after so much had been spent on the war effort.
While there’s no denying the exploitation and atrocities that took place as a result of British Empire expansion that pre-dated Elizabeth’s birth, the British parliamentary system retained by many former colonies has arguably imparted more democracy in the long term compared with the presidential system, given that it’s easier to fire prime ministers than presidents, and far less power is consolidated in the hands of a single individual. Imagine, for example, if American presidents had to sit alongside their party colleagues every day and face televised grillings from opposition politicians like they do in British or Canadian Houses of Commons. The British Crown and empire is also synonymous with that democratic virtue.
So why is it so important to avoid scapegoating Queen Elizabeth through intellectual laziness and to place the blame squarely where it belongs? Because those actually responsible for perpetuating empire are still at it, and far fewer seem to be as critical of it as they are of the recently deceased symbolic figurehead.
Empire has always been about resources. Britain colonized India, then effectively carved out Pakistan from it in 1947, a year after Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced that it was time to leave India after 300 years. The classic “divide and conquer” move provided a foothold in proximity to its petroleum in the Middle East. How is this any different than the U.S. carving out Kosovo from the former Yugoslavia to antagonize top Russian ally Serbia in the wake of the Cold War? Or training and equipping “Syrian rebels” to overthrow President Bachar Al-Assad, around the time that he was set to partner with Iran and Iraq on a pipeline that would provide a lifeline from American sanctions?
And how is it not a form of modern-day colonization when the U.S. and Britain spearhead military missions in resource-rich countries around the globe (most recently and notably in Ukraine, with its rich natural resources), after which NATO allies who contributed to the effort squabble among themselves to divvy up the spoils?
Maligning Elizabeth’s life of positive service through excessive focus on the negative historical roles of prior royalty risks overshadowing the debate that we ought to be having about how insidious and detrimental imperial actions have become in the hands of those we actually choose to serve — and the unelected powers behind their thrones.
Her website can be found at http://www.rachelmarsden.com.
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