“If you trash on the monarchy,” a friend warned me when I pitched her this column, “everyone will hate you.”
Now, she has a flair for the dramatic — after all, who could hate someone so modest, good-looking, and brimming with cheer? — but she’s familiar with the mildly indignant, protective instinct of Britain. The older crowd here quite like their Queenie. For them, she represents something fundamentally English, something timeless and dignified and expressed best through the medium of imposing gilt-framed portraits. She is reserved, stately and a living testament to aging gracefully — the exact opposite of Boris Johnson.
The only thing I can do when I encounter these wealthy, semi-senile, royalist septuagenarians is smile and nod, because it’s exactly what I expect from them given their background. It’s useless trying to argue with them, just like it’s useless trying to dissuade my white friends’ grandmothers from affectionately calling me “one of the good ones.” They’ve been set for decades in antiquated, class-driven prejudices, and they’ll soon shuffle off this mortal coil anyway, so why waste my breath?
But what surprises me is the attitude of my British classmates and friends, my own generation of opinionated left-leaners. They shrug. The royalty, they point out, have no executive power, but they’re important figureheads. The Queen is famously apolitical, the monarchy is involved in charity and they rake in tourism money, not to mention their important place in British history and national identity. Queen Lizzie is seen as an adorable old woman with a train of corgis, and the younger generation of royals are treated with the same adoration as beloved celebrities in America and Canada.
The claim that “the monarchy isn’t political” is, scientifically speaking, horseshit. How can you talk about their historical importance and then completely ignore their history by claiming they’re somehow above politics? To depoliticize empire is to deny the past, and this cultural amnesia seems to pervade Britain.
In Germany today, it’s a federal crime to deny or minimize the Holocaust. The country is internationally recognized as a nation that confronts the mistakes of their past in order to learn from them. Students learn about the Holocaust as early as third or fourth grade, and later many will visit concentration camps or the various comprehensive museums to learn about the nation’s troubled history. Since the Nuremberg trials, where German leaders were tried for their crimes, their government has paid out billions in reparations to survivors and Israeli Jews.
I’m not in the business of comparing historical atrocities or having a genocide-based pissing contest, but when I mention the British imperial project in relation to the Holocaust the reaction is generally a bemused chuckle and a “whoa, let’s relax.” Certainly I’m not contending they’re equivalent, nor do I believe such a comparison would be at all productive, but I think people tend to underestimate or outright deny the sheer scale of death and destruction wrought by empire.
Maybe it’s because the British government systematically and secretly destroyed thousands of records of their own imperial rule of the colonies.
"It is permissible,” reads one administrative injunction, “as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast." Does that sound like a clean conscience?
But it’s harder than that to erase history. The British introduced concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer war well before the rise of Nazi Germany, and chemical warfare was born in mid-19th century Britain during the Crimean War. British occupation of India is another period rife with colonialist atrocity — apart from individual events like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, between 12 and 29 million Indians starved to death as a direct result of British policy. At the height of the famine in 1877 and 1878, Indian merchants were gently encouraged, at gunpoint, to export a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat to Britain.
If you really want to feel nauseated and disillusioned with humanity, you can read about colonial Britain’s role in the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (which began in 1952, the same year the Queen was coronated) in Caroline Elkin’s Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, the research for which revealed the destruction of the Foreign Office records. Interrogation under torture was widespread and horrifically inventive, often involving gang-rape, electrocution, bodily mutilation and burning.
No, the Queen wasn’t sitting in Buckingham Palace ordering this torture to take place. But Britain’s 20th century history is the obvious progression of imperialist policies inextricably linked to the crown. The monarchy is empire in its most distilled and recognizable form — to endorse the crown is an implicit endorsement of the horrors of imperialism, and indifference to it is similarly problematic.
Empire’s not cute, empire’s not charming, and empire’s nothing to be proud of. It’s based on brutal, avaricious conquest, on greed and depravity and inhumane subjugation. It’s erased entire civilizations from the map and permanently crippled others. The rhetoric used to justify it was deluded and fanatically racist — the realities that this fiction disguised were even more horrifying.
And it’s still operating today. The Israel-Palestine conflict rages on, due in no small part to Britain’s Balfour Declaration. In this period of austerity in the UK, Buckingham Palace needs some "essential" refurbishment to the tune of £369m of taxpayer's money. We in Canada shelled out a cool half a million pounds for Will and Kate's last visit. The royals regularly tour the countries their great-grandparents violently subjugated, waving cheerily to the cameras — Prince Harry’s just popped down to the Caribbean, where he will carefully avoid talking about the British involvement in the slave trade. No apologies, no acknowledgement of the past, and a continual endorsement of jolly old England. To this day, the sun never sets on the British Empire.
Here’s a ridiculous fact — there’s a “Canadian throne.” Meaning what, a chair made of hockey sticks glued together with maple syrup? No, an ideological position, occupied by — you guessed it — Elizabeth II herself. Never forget that Canada is still a constitutional monarchy, technically speaking, with all the baggage that entails. Now that our Prime Minister has acknowledged our own history and pledged reconciliation towards Canadian Aboriginals, maybe it’s time we ask ourselves whether we still want to participate in Britain’s cultural amnesia.
Already, more than half of Canada would prefer a Canadian head of state rather than a 90-year-old woman who wears a million-dollar hat. I'm pretty sure the Queen is an immortal vampire, but if I'm wrong and she actually kicks the bucket at some point in the next century, it's a valuable opportunity to wrangle independence from the crown. It's eminently doable, constitutionally speaking. And as an added bonus, we could finally get the Queen's wrinkled mug off our currency and replace it with the chiseled features of Justin Trudeau.
Scot Topic is culture-at-large editor Richard Joseph's contribution to The Gazette. He's currently doing an exchange year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.