It’s been fascinating to observe the diverse responses to the passing of the longest reigning monarch in recent world history. Of these, the most interesting have been from citizens of the Commonwealth countries, regardless of whether they have ‘gained independence’ or not.
Twitter has been abuzz with rudeness and crudity from those who have the bad manners to hurl abuse or throw shade at a 96-year-old matriarch whose image has adorned public walls and coins for decades. She is accused of having presided over the unwanted extended colonisation of many countries, of facilitating and rubber-stamping administrations whose political atrocities are public knowledge, and even of being an inadequate mother, given the conduct of her two elder sons, particularly the second one, whose titles and honours she has had to remove from him in the past year.
I feel that the way she has conducted herself publicly has imaginatively held an eroding British Empire together, in the most important arena in the modern era of media technology: that of public acknowledgment, and recognition. This lady clearly commands not political realms, but personal respect.
Her reign has been beneficial for Britain, particularly since she started paying taxes after the Annus Horribilis of 1992, the year when fire destroyed part of her stately home, and ordinary British taxpayers, in the wake of sex scandals presented by her children and their partners, refused to pay the enormous bill for repairs.
She is presented by the mainstream media as an image of elegance, style, warmth and wit: a person whose conduct is seen as exemplary, and fitting to the role which she agreed to take on, in 1956. Consistency has been her hallmark, and restraint her signature.
She has clearly been aghast, given her own personal choices, by the acts of her daughters-in-law Diana and Sarah, and the recent announcements of her grandson Harry and his American wife.
Eclipsing all this has been the ugly legal cases involving her second son Andrew, whose association with the disgraced Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell has damaged the reputations of his extended family. The fact that he recently settled the case brought against him by Virginia Giuffre and others with payment of a huge sum of money, and the excruciating revelations offered by himself in the interview he gave to the BBC in his mother’s own residence, must have appalled and grieved his elderly parents.
The legacy left by any individual is not just measured in monetary terms. The late monarch’s public image has been a masterpiece of curation over many decades: her clothes, her dazzling jewellery collection, her huge homes and beautiful gardens, her love of horses and dogs, her meal preferences, her love for her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, her long-lasting ‘power couple’ marriage to a man known for his often intemperate and openly racist statements, her insistence on privacy and her consistently low key and measured self presentation, have all created a rock solid impression of stability and resilience, continually enhanced and updated by ritualistic augmentation.
People who deny they are ‘Royalists’ are drinking cups of tea and watching videos on DIY full English breakfasts, to commemorate her passing in their homes. Unlike Diana, whose beauty and glamour was both intensified and damaged by her personal sorrows and revelations, this lady has done nothing for people to comment adversely about.
Twice in her long reign she was accused of failing to read the moods of the public: once in her youth when she was slow to respond empathically to a natural disaster in Wales, and most clearly after Diana’s sudden death in 1997, when she clearly showed that she did not want to countenance the life choices of her daughter-in-law, and grant her the dignity of a state funeral. After all, Diana had recently divorced Charles, and relinquished her title. But in the end, through the combined persuasions of the PM and her eldest son, she acquiesced.
We note that Sri Lanka, a country which gained Independence in 1948, and in which many people who regularly enjoy High Tea, modelled on garden parties at Buckingham Palace, fiercely rail against affiliations with Britain, is going to declare a national holiday and fly the national flag at half mast on that day, to respect the Queen of the country which – for far longer than the Portuguese and the Dutch – has colonised and exploited the resources of its people. These same individuals criticise the English accents of members of their own ruling elite, but seem to see no contradiction in their own words or actions.
Clearly, the effects of colonisation are complex. Do we respect this lady personally, because of her great age? And if so, do we respect all people who reach such a great age? Do we respect her for her hard work, as if her work in attending public events and opening exhibitions and granting awards is somehow as difficult as coal mining, or street sweeping, in food and beverage service, or working long hours in public health care? Or do we respect her because she is somehow seen as separate from the institution she served so well – and from which she personally derived so much status and social power? Is it even possible to see her as separate from what interests us – her inherited privilege, wealth and position?
Her eldest son, whose adultery scandal has now been resolved via divorce, death and now marriage to his partner in adultery, is also now The Head of The Church of England. Perhaps his first act as sovereign might be to remove that title from himself? But of course that tradition itself derives from Henry VIII, who created the Church of England when his petition for divorce was not granted by the Catholic Church, to enable him to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. So in a way, Charles III is following his own version of tradition.
The history of all this is as chequered as Battenberg Cake – one of the favourite afternoon tea treats enjoyed by the late monarch.
Elizabeth I was famous for her use of iconography to portray herself as a powerful sovereign. We see her in gorgeous, voluminous apparel, bedazzling in jewellery, standing dominant on the map of the known world, in many royal portraits. This second Elizabeth has proved to be as good – and better – at PR and self presentation. Her current team displays peak preparation.
It takes some skill to continue to command respect, and financial support, from people who are going to find it difficult to pay their own heating bills in Britain this coming winter. The costs of the upcoming funeral will be paid by her grieving public. In history and legend, English monarchs were believed to be anointed by God, and thus to have the ability to heal people from illness, and the magical power to remove swords from stones.
Her more mundane modern job was to keep the public image of Britain high, in the face of the inexorable rise of both democracy and post-colonial feeling. In effect, to sustain the benefits of colonisation for the ruling classes in the country, and for all those who have derived status and privilege by associating themselves with those benefits. To make the lives of those who profit from social inequity and hereditary wealth and privilege look desirable and justified.
She now emerges from two World Wars, global recessions and pandemics, terrorist attacks, and family disasters of epic scale, smelling entirely of roses. She has made doing one’s duty look like a blessing.
We are told that her mother, the late Queen Mother, used to order a hamper of English goodies from Fortnum and Masons every week. In that hamper was often a jar of rose petal jam. Read the label which describes the ingredients and process by which this exquisite delicacy is made, and you will see how good at their game these citizens of their late sovereign truly are.
Paddington Bear can keep his marmalade sandwiches. I vote rose petal jam forever.
By Dr. Devika Brendon