Queen Elizabeth’s death on the 8th of September at Balmoral Castle saw tearful crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace, filled with nostalgia and memory. But what has her reign meant for the planet? We unpack difficult questions about monarchy and power…
The end of an era…
In the past week, you might have seen clips of people across countries flooding the streets to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II. Dressed in black, they flocked to the British offices to offer their condolences, leaving flowers and cards, repeating that she was their icon and leader. In politically troubled cities like Hong Kong, a city that was colonised for 156 years before being handed to China, and is now being stripped of its freedom by Beijing, they remembered the pre-1997 “golden age” with (colonial) nostalgia.
Others remember her as the green queen. From abandoning fur to travelling in electric cars, the monarch tried to live in a more eco-friendly way. The Queen was even crowned as the Royal with the smallest carbon footprint. Her annual travel emissions in 2019 totted up to 7.7 tonnes – less than a return flight from London to Perth. She was conscious of what she wore: “According to Lyst’s 2020 Conscious Fashion Report, compiled from searches carried out by 100 million customers on the platform over the past 12 months, the announcement that the monarch would no longer wear fur in November 2019 prompted a 52 per cent spike in views of faux fur products.”
Her green lifestyle has set the path for successors. Who’s next? The British royal line of succession is based on the order of the Queen’s descendants and a series of legislative rules passed by Parliament. The heir to the throne is Charles, Prince of Wales.
….and the memory of colonialism.
Let’s now look at the Queen’s reign. She became monarch on February 6, 1952, while on a safari holiday in the then-British colony of Kenya. The same year, her reign saw the violent putting down of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya where 90,000 Kenyans were tortured or maimed, and 160,000 were detained in camps. Her reign also saw the British military open fire on a crowd of protestors shooting 26 and killing 14 in Northern Ireland during Bloody Sunday. She then went on to award the Order of the British Empire to the soldiers who carried out the Bloody Sunday massacre.
But colonialism (and thereby decolonisation) is ongoing, more than just a “memory”. A viral Instagram post by Indigenous People’s Movement reminds us that “Decolonisation is less about returning to a pre-colonial society and more about recognising that we live under a colonial system. That the way things are are because a particular ideology has systematically erased others while normalising itself. Once something is normalised, it’s hard to imagine anything else.”
This manifests in idolisation and mysticism associated with the monarchy that makes it impossible to imagine what’s not normalised. Anthony Barnett writes for Byline Times: “The empty vessel that was Elizabeth II no longer represented anything special except itself. It became a relic. We admire relics. We have museums for them. But a country needs more.”
It’s more than okay not to mourn the queen
And perfectly reasonable for formerly colonised countries to demand reparations. Speaking of relics, it’s impossible to miss the billions of dollars in jewellery the royal family stole from countries like India and Africa. You might have seen conversations about returning the crown jewels like the Kohinoor diamond and the Great Star of Africa, which have been symbols of colonial conquest. In fact, there’s an estimate that Britain stole a staggering $45 trillion from India. And financial reparations don’t even begin to cover it, numerically trying to quantify the longer-term psychological, intergenerational damage is counterproductive.
Questions of power
The future of the monarchy also depends on how the monarchy has been working.
The first Queen Elizabeth was an absolute monarch. The defining quality of Queen Elizabeth II? She was a constitutional monarch. This means that during her reign, which was limited by a constitution, there was violence. While it’s fair to say that she played a role and benefited from it, this also raises questions about the purpose of monarchy and this extreme wealth inequality.
While Elizabeth I was an absolute monarch who ruled more directly and brutally (like overseeing the horrific colonisation of India in the 1800s), Elizabeth II is relatively politically powerless. A symbol, a relic. So we ask, what does the royal family symbolise and stand for? Do they symbolise colonial history and hierarchy or the vision of an equitable democratic society?
FEATURED IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Close-Up of Gate of Buckingham Palace