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Apolitical is political: The British Empire and the Death of Queen Elizabeth II

The death of a head of state is always a significant event, particularly when they are still in office. The death of Queen Elizabeth II is a particularly poignant event; she is the longest reigning monarch in British history. Her reign and her life has seen significant transformation of virtually every facet of life. Not least politically. When she was born in 1926 (around the same time as my grandparents) the British Empire was at its greatest territorial extent; today it is a relic of history albeit one with a deep and largely painful legacy. It is that legacy, particularly some of the discussion of it over the past few days which inspired this post.

Monarchy is a tricky concept in the modern nation state – the monarch is a specific person but also embodies an office and an institution in a way that no republican leader ever does.[1] Queen Elizabeth II was not merely the holder of the office of head of state, but she was the physical embodiment of the office – in a way no president could or should be. And she was a person, a wife, a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to be sure but that can be said of most heads of state. The dual nature of the head of state (person and office) is particularly complex in a constitutional monarchy such as the UK – in theory the monarch is apolitical – but they’re also the head of state and a particularly personal possessor of that office – it is Her/His Majesty’s Government; Her/His Majesty’s Armed Forces[2] etc., etc. By all accounts, Queen Elizabeth II was perfectly, properly apolitical but the actions of Her Majesty’s Government from 1952 to 2022 were quite literally carried out in her name. Nor can the monarch be divorced from history – indeed that is the very foundation upon which they claim legitimacy.

And the history of the British Empire is contemporary to Queen Elizabeth II. When she acceded to the throne most of the British Empire was still under British rule. She talked about ‘our’ imperial family in early speeches. Her troops were committing atrocities in her name in places like Kenya. Regardless of whatever responsibility Elizabeth Windsor personally should bare for those atrocities and the actions of HM Government from 1952-2022, the Head of State cannot be divorced from that history. Furthermore, the Royal Family has benefitted significantly financially and otherwise from the British Empire dating back to the time of the Elizabeth I (to say nothing of the Norman Conquest!). The monarchy is complicit in the legacy of the British Empire.[3]

The monarchy is political even if the monarch isn’t. First, the existence of the monarchy is political – it is the apex of a particular political system, a particular political order. It upholds a particularly idea of Britain. And it revels in traditions and history that are steeped in political meanings. From the crown jewels to the Order of the British Empire and even the Prince of Wales the English/British Empire is inseparable from the institution. Additionally, what does it actually mean to be apolitical? Apolitical is a political position itself. You are accepting the status quo, giving tacit if not implicit acceptance to activities conducted in your name. Further, it is absurd to think the head of state can be apolitical internationally. It may be constitutionally correct for the monarch to abstain from domestic politics but as a symbol of the British state the British monarch is deeply, significantly political in the global context. They represent the state, they embody the state and thus cannot be separated from the baggage of Britain and certainly not our empire.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that plenty of people around the world are reacting to the news about the death of Queen Elizabeth II within the context of their feelings about the legacy of the British empire. If your grandparents or parents and/or your country was subjected to atrocities carried out by Her Majesty’s Armed Forces then it is understandable that your feelings towards Queen Elizabeth II are shaped by that. The lack of accountability this country has subjected itself to regarding the empire is a justifiable cause of considerable anger around the world. As a symbol of this country, perhaps the greatest symbol of this country, it is unsurprising that the Queen attracts this anger. Additionally, Elizabeth Windsor was not without agency. She could have abdicated and enjoyed a quiet life. I appreciate that she may have felt that she didn’t have a choice, that she had a duty to perform, but that is nevertheless a choice that she made.

Is now the ‘right time’ for these conversations… well, if we were just talking about Elizabeth Windsor, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, then I’d more than agree that perhaps now is not the time. But if we were just talking about Elizabeth Windsor most of us would probably not be talking about her (not much fuss was made when Friedrich Wilhelm Hohenzollern died in 2010). Queen Elizabeth II was a political figure, the representation of Britain and all that it stands for (good and bad). Furthermore, the next two weeks are going to be packed with hagiographical tributes to her and the monarchy – while there are plenty who’ll argue that this isn’t political – it is, because the monarchy is political. So we cannot be surprised when people react to that. And, if she is a symbol of Britain and Britishness then she is a symbol of the good and bad that Britain represents regardless of her personal responsibility.

We need to have a proper, grown-up conversation about the empire and its legacy (and what we owe the, as a young Queen Elizabeth II would say, ‘imperial family’). I doubt we’ll get one anytime soon (even though the new Chancellor has written some good books on the Empire…) but we desperately need one, and that involves contemplating the role of the monarchy in that imperial family and its history. This is overdue, and perhaps some of the anger directed at Queen Elizabeth II could have been mitigated had we undertaken this process 20-30 years ago.

But, again, she was also a person – a mother, a grandmother, great-grandmother and more. I remember well the pain of losing my grandparents, and dread the day I lose my parents, and no amount of wealth or privilege insulates anyone from that. On a human level I do have sympathy for the Windsors at this moment. Furthermore, this country did quite well on the lottery of monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II, and with her father too. On another day we can discuss why that’s actually a case for republicanism, but not today is not the day for that.

[1]And this isn’t necessarily restricted to ‘democracies or constitutional monarchies’, as Colin Jones discusses in The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (Penguin 2003) 18th century France had quite a bit of difficulty with whether or not the King was the nation or whether he merely represented the nation as it transitioned from the feudal conception of the monarchy as a personal relationship with his subjects to the more ‘modern’ conception of the monarchy as an office/institution conceptually separatable from the person who happens to be the monarch

[2]And for what its worth the military, the government, parliament et al swear allegiance not to the people or the nation but to the person of the monarch (and the re-swearing of the oath for King Charles III symbolically demonstrates that it is the person not the institution they swear allegiance to)

[3]Which isn’t to say the monarchy is entirely responsible for the Empire – the Empire was the product of millions of decisions by thousands if not millions of people.

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