My late mother seriously admired the now late Queen Elizabeth II. Not only was she a conservative Anglophiliac with overwhelming British ancestry (all the “nations” of the UK) who had tea in the afternoon at the proper British time in more or less the proper British way, there was also the matter that the queen bore a son her heir only seven months after my mother had me. I was raised to see Charles as a a sort of cohort.
Indeed, i came to view him with great sympathy, although in later years he would come to be highly embarrassing in many ways well and widely known. But in 1958, the second time I was in UK, on arriving I saw tabloids with front page stories about some ridiculous matter involving Charles, I think it was about him playing games in streets uncontrolled, or something like that. I felt total sympathy for this guy about my age whose every action, however trivial, ended up on the front pages of newspapers with all kinds of people weighing in censoriously. I was horrified. But now, finally, he is King Charles III.
So the death of Elizabeth II is semi-personal, reminding me of the death of my mother at 97 in 2010, who really revered the late queen. But given this personal aspect, I wish to consider this appropriately seriously and substantively.
A takeoff for me, having just returned from my first trip to Europe in three years for conference on Nonlinear Dynamics in Economics and Finance in Urbino, Italy, is an FT Weekend piece by Simon Schama. He raises deeper historical issues, in particular the matter of QE II overseeing the dismantling of the British Empire. He notes that the main three earlier British monarchs who reigned for long times: Elizabeth I, George III, and Victoria, all who suffered various vicissitudes during their reigns, those reigns all ended with Britain (or still England Wales for QE I), the nation ended stronger and more powerful by pretty much any measure at the end of their reigns compared with their beginnings. For QE II, the outcome was quite the opposite. She oversaw the dismantling of the British Empire.
The extremity of how great the decline was needs to go back before her accession 70 years ago. Schama emphasizes as Elizabeth’s ultimate promise and commitment she held to whole life, and probably more than anything else why so many mourn her personally, was made five years before her accession in February 1947, three quarters of a century ago, in of all places, South Africa. She famously declared: “My whole life, whether it will be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”
Now that time was even more full of British Empire than it was on her accession when the old imperialist, Winston Churchill, was the first of her 15 prime ministers, the last of whose accessions, Liz Truss, was her last Act of State, the day before she died at Balmoral, literally standing on her last legs. In Feb. 1947, her father was still Emperor of India, whose independence later that year Churchill would oppose, although ineffectually as Clement Atlee was PM. This was also while South Africa, although independent, still appeared to honor officially allying with UK in both of the world wars, with the victory of the apartheid-imposing National Party coming the following year of 1948, also the birth year of both me and her heir.
Also, Britain still controlled the Palestine Mandate, without yet an independent Israel, also to come in that following year. The British Empire was as it had been at its peak in the immediate aftermath of WW I, only missing a few pieces out of the Middle East officially, such as Iraq, handed over to Lawrence of Arabia’s old friend, as well, Faisal, whose son would be assassinated when he was overthrown in in 1958 by a Baathist coup. Ireland also was still held in that immediate aftermath, leaving a century ago, arguably the first piece to do so in this long dismantling.
Today it is pretty much gone. When she accessed, it was still true that “the sun never sets” over what UK officially ruled, although technically once the Indian subcontinent left in 1947 it was no longer an Empire. There is still its ghost in the Commonwealth, which the British monarch still officially heads (along with lots of other things, including the Church of England). But she was the official Head of State of only 14 of those at her death, with several of those moving to change that soon such as Jamaica, Barbados doing so recently (those 14 include the core 5 Eyes nations of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but even they could go). Beyond that there are only oddly scattered bits of direct British rule with English speakers on them, such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, which Margaret Thatcher puffed herself up over by reconquering from Argentina, although probably only because the US played in with its senior role in the Five Eyes of ultimate Anglophilia, a matter Charles de Gaulle of people was all too well aware of.
The gradual dissolution of this vast empire, probably the largest ever in world history, with the possible exception of that of Genghis Khan, which dominated the world for the century of the Pax Britannica, contrasts sharply with that of the more sudden dissolutions of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires at the end of WW I, with the delayed partial dissolution of the Russian Empire with the end of the USSR in 1991, although the successor Russian Federation still resembles a smaller version of it with its many sub-national units, with its possible dissolution in WW I undone by the Bolshevik Revolution that held most of it together, although Finland got out, while in WW II Stalin was able to absorb certain territories never part of it, such as western Ukraine.
The essentially sudden dissolution of those three empires led to conflicts that still plague the world. The worst probably came out of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which had been in long decline and shrinkage. But the problem of Israel and the Palestinians, of Syria and Lebanon and Iraq all come of that dismemberment, not to mention some of the problems in the Balkans, which triggered the beginning of that fateful WW I. And the Austro-Hungarian dissolution has left us also with those gnawing problems in the Balkans, not to mention the simmering resentments in Hungary ruled by Orban who supports Putin and Trump with his population still dreaming of lost sub-rule over parts of Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, and sub-Carpathian Ukraine, where the dominant local group is the rather historically important Rusyns.
Well, I suppose the gradualism of the dissolution of the British Empire saved its former parts from such conflicts. Clearly the conflict between India and Pakistan is serious, and the British went along with the partition that arguably gave us that. The British themselves arguably aggravated one of the worst conflicts coming out of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, with them in WW I making promises to both Arabs and Jews regarding what would happen with Israel and Palestine.
While it was gradual, for the first decade of Elizabeth’s rule, the British government fought hard against various independence movements, such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, with slaughters in various places. Critics of Elizabeth II point out these events as reasons not to mourn her, that she did not somehow stop all this, or at least just resign in protest, or whatever. One of the more outspoken was Karen Attiah in WaPo today, who essentially says she should have resigned upfront over all this, although, frankly, Attiah completely destroys her own credibility by in the end taking QE II to task because after Nigeria won independence in 1960, when in the 1970s the Ibo tribe in Biafra tried to obtain independence from Nigeria, the British government supported the Nigerian government. It turns out that what Attiah is really worked up about is that she is an Ibo and her grandfather was forced to flee. Oops, talk about a complete collapse of credibility. Frankly, WaPo should not have published such a blatantly worthless piece of self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, even as I was and remain sympathetic to the Ibo cause.
Certainly in the first years of her reign Elizabeth did nothing to assist in a peaceful end of the Empire. But her defenders point to her playing a role in the longer run of accepting that it was going to happen and making it do so with a minimum of violence, not fully avoided of course, and a maximum of broader acceptance and tolerance. A crucial sign many point to was in 1961 the year before the majority of British colonies in Africa gained independence. She danced publicly with Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, which had gone out the door first in 1957. This symbolically set the course.
She famously never publicly questioned policy of any of her 15 prime ministers (she also had 14 US presidents, 13 of whom she met, all but Harry Truman). But one of the few moments there appeared to have been a hint of a disagreement involved the matter of sanctions against apartheid in South Africa in the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was not enthusiastic and opposing supporting them. Somehow the Queen managed to get it out unofficially that she disagreed with Thatcher, which led to a major row with many criticizing her for going beyond her authority. But in the end she won, with her helping to push Thatcher to support the sanctions that in the end would help end apartheid, with her later meeting Nelson Mandela, who clearly appreciated her role in this world historical event, especially given the historical role of the British royal family’s involvement with slavery in the past.
The change all this brought can be seen in Britain itself as well, where while there is certainly plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment and racism as there is in the US also, one finds the incoming Conservative government of Liz Truss, who models herself after Thatcher reportedly, having descendants of immigrants from former colonies holding the top three cabinet posts: Home, Exchequer, and Foreign Secretary.
One can criticize Elizabeth II for apparently never outright apologizing for any of the past, even as she bowed her head in certain locations where serious wrongs were done in the name of British rule as well as noting that indeed many people suffered in the past. According to Schama in his essay, her greatest single speech was one where she did this in Dublin in 2011, a speech she herself largely wrote against the wishes of many in her inner circle, in which she acknowledged the sufferings on all sides in Ireland in the past and supported the Good Friday Agrementof 13 years earlier that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This was all the more important and difficult given that in 1979 the IRA had assassinated Lord Mountbatter, uncle of her husband and her own second cousin. Schama declared that this speech “put a period” on those peacekeeping agreements.