Tom Rachman is a Canadian-British writer based in London. His new novel, The Imposters, comes out next year.
Horses dragged the golden carriage through London, eight glum beasts clopping no faster than you’d walk, owing to the tonnage of the absurd vehicle, with its carved cherubs, palm trees and sea gods blowing conch shells. Within the red-velvet interior, a 27-year-old woman endured the ride past the gawking crowds, kids on shoulders, grownups on tiptoes. Soon, black-and-white newsreels of the coronation travelled by sea to the old colonies, where spectators in dark cinemas pondered this woman in her rolling jewel box, she a descendent, they descendants, too, tied by history, opposite ends of the fraying rope of empire.
“Now that we crown Her as our Queen,” the poet laureate, John Masefield, wrote 70 years ago. “May this old land revive and be/Again a star set in the sea.”
Even back then, Britain knew it had come down in the world, and yearned for a resurgence. But would the second Elizabethan era make Britain great again?
Decades on, as the United Kingdom marks the Queen’s platinum jubilee with pageantry at the palace and pints at the pub, Britain is not quite “a star set in the sea.” It’s a disunited kingdom, humbled but not humble, lurching between bombast and insecurity. To the faithful, her jubilee is a jolly occasion to flap union flags, and perhaps summon national unity after all the bruises of Brexit. To skeptics, it’s nothing but a bore, even an affront, this rah-rah and curtsying to people whose ancestors happened to be better warlords than yours.
As for Elizabeth, she has – by abstaining on most matters that matter – spent a lifetime avoiding controversy, instead projecting a model of unimpeachable service, often in the form of ribbon-snipping. Older than almost everyone, she is Britain’s great-grandmother, dignified but mirthless, and always there. Only, a 96-year-old will not always be there, and the indulgence granted to Britain’s longest-serving monarch will not apply to her successors.
They will be urged to take moral positions, will resist and will blunder either way, prompting questions about why a Royal Family remains – and what Britain itself stands for anymore.
Since Elizabeth II’s ascent in 1952, the United Kingdom has transformed, economically and in terms of its citizenry, adding millions of people with origins in the former colonies, plus millions more from continental Europe. This has enriched the culture beyond measure, not to mention bettering the food. The transformation has also challenged traditional notions of Britishness, dismaying those who feel the past was theirs, the present is less so.
This disquiet exploded into view with the identity crisis named Brexit, whose guiding neurosis was that an island could become mightier if isolated: that Britannia might again rule the waves, would rival the 27 countries of the European Union, and revive the spirit of the Blitz. In short, the future would be the past.
But the past isn’t only for nostalgics. Activists, too, are scrutinizing what Britain has been, and they demand a reckoning with the brutality of empire. On occasion, the Queen has met with direct criticism, as during a 1986 trip to New Zealand, when protesters pelted her with eggs and a Maori man spun around to expose his tattooed buttocks. Yet the royals – that epitome of unearned privilege and its thread to colonization – have faced surprisingly limited pressure to answer for the past. That is changing.
On Prince Charles’s recent visit to Canada, Indigenous leaders demanded that his mother say sorry for historical crimes.
Two months earlier, Prince William conducted a tone-deaf trip to Belize, the Bahamas and Jamaica, where protesters called for reparations over slavery, which his ancestors, starting with Elizabeth I, endorsed and profited from. A half-dozen Caribbean countries are now likely to break with the British monarch as ceremonial head-of-state.
Barbados did so in November, prompting Prince Charles to declare that the atrocity of slavery “forever stains our history.” As for the Queen, her defenders say it’s not her place to issue a formal apology for Britain: The monarch is a figurehead, restricted from expressing opinions that could seem political. According to the official line, the sovereign is there “as a focus for national identity, unity and pride.” If so, her role is a paradox: represent the nation – yet stand for little.
When Britain could’ve broken apart in the 2014 referendum on Scottish secession, the Queen merely expressed hope that voters “think very carefully about the future.” On Brexit – whose fallout once more threatens to fracture the kingdom – she has revealed no public opinion. In 1995, she did worry aloud about the coming Quebec independence referendum, but only when fooled by a Montreal radio host into believing she was speaking privately with prime minister Jean Chrétien.
As stated in a review of two new books on the royals (1,296 pages combined): “None of the authors discussed here has managed to track down a single new interesting thing the Queen has said or flush an opinion she holds.”
So what would merit a royal intervention? For instance, if a sociopath with a taste for fascism took power, as keeps happening elsewhere, would the Queen speak up? I’m not sure.
The organization Republic – with the slogan “Make Elizabeth the Last” – campaigns to replace the Crown with a head-of-state who has accomplished something on her own merit, someone aspirational, someone elected. For now, most Britons still prefer a hereditary monarchy. But support is eroding. In 2016, 76 per cent were in favour. By late last year, it was down to 60 per cent. Young Britons are split, with almost as many wishing for an elected head of state.
The recent scandal of Prince Andrew, who denied a sex-abuse claim, then paid a large settlement to end his accuser’s lawsuit, has damaged the royal reputation, as have tensions with Prince Harry and his biracial wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who said a member of the Royal Family expressed concerns about how dark their children’s skin would be.
A common (but disputed) argument is that the royals are good for tourism. They also cost public money, receiving an annual grant to conduct their official duties, including paying the servants and holding garden parties. The latest payment was £86.3-million, or $140-million.
A suspicion of pomp and power has history here, from Oliver Cromwell’s rebels beheading King Charles I in 1649; to the English-born agitator Thomas Paine (and his American revolutionary brethren) ridiculing the monarchy as a system that crowns “an ass for a lion”; to George Orwell describing England as “a family with the wrong members in control.”
But equally, the British have scorned revolt, considering radicalism a vanity, possibly of French extraction, or for the wild Bolshevik. The tendency (till Brexit) was to muddle along, merely patching worn practices against present-day leakiness, as with the decrepit, mouse-infested Houses of Parliament. This worked as long as Britain – despite class tensions – had a sense of nationhood. In 1941, when Nazi bombers dropped bombs on Britain, Orwell wrote: “At the approach of an enemy, it closes its ranks.”
Yet this Blitz spirit – island-dwellers standing bravely apart; protecting the vulnerable; suffering hardships together; holding fast to their green fields and burbling brooks – this itself became a much-patched, much-repurposed myth, sometimes drifting into chauvinism. Britain doesn’t need the Europeans, with their shifty bureaucrats! They need us!
The irony is that nothing in memory undermined the nation as much as nationalism, the Brexit hubris that relegated the country internationally, punctured its economy and cleaved the population so sharply that – even six years after the vote – “Remain” or “Leave” can seem stronger affiliations than the passport.
Now, Boris Johnson and his Brexiteer chums hold power, partying in violation of COVID-19 restrictions, undermining the peace in Northern Ireland and scheming to dump migrants in Rwanda. As for the burbling brooks of English legend, they’re pumped with raw sewage.
Perhaps this is what a queen is for. Not, to be clear, for dealing with raw sewage. But simply to exist: a British public figure who still respects rules.
When her husband died last year, Elizabeth sat at his funeral among rows of empty church seats. Prince Philip had been her partner for 73 years, the private confidant of a public figure with few outlets for her true self. She could’ve bypassed COVID regulations that day, but declined. Others grieved alone. So would she.
Still, why cheer a clan of rich strangers? Why follow their sagas, both tawdry and tedious?
C. S. Lewis, author of the classic children’s novels The Chronicles of Narnia, argued that people crave heroes, so democracies must provide healthy choices. “Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters,” he said in 1943, when Hitler and Stalin were still in power. “For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”
Ever since those poisonous times, liberal thinkers have struggled for a healthy incarnation of national pride, one that doesn’t end up in the invasion of Poland. But Britain today is so complex and so polarized that it’s not obvious what to settle on.
When my son’s nursery pledged to teach kids “British values,” I almost laughed – not only because telling toddlers about the rule-of-law seemed optimistic, but because I myself wasn’t certain what “British values” were.
Whether you believe the royals embody any values worth teaching may link to your view of the British Empire, and if you consider it an evil or a good.
But this balance-sheet view of history is folly, says Sathnam Sanghera, author of the influential bestseller Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. You cannot reduce centuries of history, involving hundreds of millions of people, to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, he contends.
Mr. Sanghera – raised in Wolverhampton, the son of Punjabi immigrants – wants Britain to study the imperial past more forthrightly, including its many wrongs. He also takes patriotic pride in British historical achievements.
“After all, the British empire, on which the sun famously never set, was not only the biggest thing that ever happened to us, but one of the biggest things that ever happened to the world,” he writes. “The problems begin when you miss it, when you fail to remember what actually happened – when these empires of the mind become a toxic cocktail of nostalgia and amnesia.”
Since the Brexit vote, writers have been trudging around these drizzled isles, and returning a steady downpour of state-of-the-nation tomes with titles such as Who Are We Now?, a recent volume by Jason Cowley. “An attachment to the nation and the flag is often strongest among those groups who are struggling or feel excluded or scorned,” he notes.
That might seem strange: snubbed by society, you revere its symbols? Then again, if trapped in a dismal job or surviving on state benefits, left out and left behind, you’d reasonably long for triumphs, even reflected ones, whether from family, or a sports team, or celebrities or royals. Inequality remains a cruel feature of Britain, with the poor watching the rich, and finding no point of entry. A woman in the most-deprived part of England can expect to die eight years earlier than her counterpart in the wealthiest area; for men, it’s a staggering 10 years less life.
To associate yourself with anything that makes you feel less small, that you don’t need to compete for but is unconditionally yours – surely, this longing is understandable, when even the lucky and confident dread where politics is headed and what tech is making us; are stressed about soaring prices, the war in Ukraine, insanity in the culture; afraid of hackers and viruses, both digital and respiratory; bewildered by online trends that seem ridiculous till they obsess millions, and you must join or be left behind. Not to mention the environment.
So, no, it’s not mad to want something to hold onto, something stable, a comfort. For some, the royals are that.
But eventually, Elizabeth will exhaust her jubilees. Old clips will play, chronicling her voyages around the former empire (perhaps editing out footage of her watching “native displays”). It’ll depict her affection for corgis and her disaffection with Princess Di (relatable as a royal oughtn’t to be). It’ll capture a rigid role-player, waving to us in that slow-motion karate chop: known to billions, hardly known at all, a hunched old human in the end, supporting herself on the walking stick of her late husband.
You can condemn the Queen for what she should’ve said. On the other hand, should one who merely inherited the job wield the power to nudge people this way or that? If the royals ever become political, the family business probably collapses.
So, from the start, the Queen was stuck in a golden carriage, rolled around town, and honoured – provided she didn’t do much besides keep up a blinking crown of 1,333 diamonds that, technically, isn’t even her property.
Some day, glum horses will drag a new monarch through the streets of London in that same horribly uncomfortable golden carriage, greeted by crowds whose cheers will ring out – but with less ardour than once.
The new emperor’s clothing could unravel fast. And perhaps that’d match his royal highness to the times: an ordinary man in extraordinary headgear, on a little island that once looked larger from afar.
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