CHENNAI: I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” It is said that Princess Elizabeth wept when first reading this speech. Marking her 21st birthday, and broadcast in 1947 from a bougainvillea-studded garden in Cape Town, it heralded the young royal’s future embodiment of Britain and its empire and Commonwealth. At the time, independence demands were igniting across the postwar empire. India and Pakistan were nearing liberation from British colonial rule, but Clement Attlee’s Labour government had no intention of knuckling under elsewhere. Britain had begun an imperial resurgence policy, aiming to rebuild a fiscally devastated postwar nation and claim Big Three status on the backs of the empire’s colonised population.
For well over a century, Britain’s claims to global greatness were rooted in its empire, thought to be unique among all others. Sprawling over a quarter of the world’s landmass, the British Empire was the largest in history. After spearheading the abolition movement, Britain emerged the purveyor of a liberal imperialism, or “civilising mission,” extending developmentalist policies, which cleaved to racial hierarchies, to its 700 mn colonised subjects, purporting to usher them into the modern world. Celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, the platinum jubilee is pregnant with meaning about the nation’s imperial past and the monarchy’s overdetermined role in it. Grand memorials and statues celebrating the empire’s heroes proliferated after the Victorian era, and London became a commemorative imperial and royal parade ground. Now, it is the center stage for the queen’s unprecedented celebration at a time when long-simmering imperial history wars — with the public, politicians, scholars and the media hotly contesting the meanings, lived experiences and legacies of the British Empire — are exploding.
Protesters in Britain have taken to the streets, the floor of Parliament and the media, demanding racial justice and a colonial reckoning. Clad in black face masks, some marched to London’s Parliament Square in June 2020, chanting “Churchill was a racist.” They stopped at the prime minister’s statue, striking out his name with spray paint and replacing it with the damning words being chanted.
In few other countries does imperial nationalism endure with such explicit social, political and economic consequences. Chafing against movements to “decolonise” Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign touted a “Global Britain” vision, an Empire 2.0. “I cannot help remembering that this country over the last 200 years has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries — that is most of the members of the U.N.,” he declared. “I believe that Global Britain is a soft power superpower and that we can be immensely proud of what we are achieving.”
Debates about the meanings and legacies of Britain’s empire are not new. However, recent crises are colliding with a singular occasion of royal splendour, spotlighting gaps between fact and fiction, lived realities and imperial myth making, and the monarch’s historically embedded role as the avatar of Britain’s empire. Yet, the queen’s role as Head of the Commonwealth is nothing more than a title. It has no constitutional function and is not, a priori, inherited by her successor. What is inheritable, however, is the monarch’s role as symbolic head of state for the 15 nations comprising the Commonwealth Realm.
What is becoming clear, however, is the global public’s role. To understand how and why Britain shaped the modern world, it must not turn away from the complicated relationship between monarchy, nation and empire, and the untold sufferings it wrought on colonised populations across the globe. Rather it must untangle and understand this complicated web of power and its tentacular legacies in spite, or because, of its reverence for Queen Elizabeth II.