Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Quickfire
9 September

Queen Elizabeth made us feel less embarrassed about Britishness and empire

Without the Queen, we are scrambling to find a national identity we can be proud of.

By Pravina Rudra

In recent years conversations about “Britishness” and colonialism’s legacy have taken on an uncomfortable pitch. Books on the overwhelmingly negative aspects of empire and debates around reparations have entered popular discourse; statues have been knocked down; textbooks are being changed. For many people, Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle, whose mother is African-American, represented how far Britain had come with regards to race, but that sentiment rapidly faded as Markle struggled to assimilate into the royal family and her relationship with much of the British media grew more fractious. Awkward questions continued to be raised: after all, the monarchy invested in the slave trade; its leader is still the head of state of 14 Commonwealth nations from the Bahamas to Tuvalu.

Yet with Elizabeth II as Queen such flames were, if not dampened, at least not fanned either. Her Majesty’s manner – self-deprecating, stoic and dutiful – was the antithesis of stereotypes of Empire as overbearing, plundering and boisterous. She worked hard, cutting ribbons and shaking hands for 70 years, and greeting the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, two days before she died. Meghan and Harry appeared to have a better relationship with the Queen than with other members of the royal family – she was, in Meghan’s words, always “warm and inviting”. For many Elizabeth was the sunny side of Britishness: solid and stolid. Without her, we are scrambling to find a Britishness we can be proud of.

If it’s hard to understand what was so special about the Queen, just imagine King Charles III handing out “Orders of the British Empire”. Even though we all knew this day would come, it feels somehow distasteful. Perhaps it’s purely down to symbolism – a male head of state evokes the patriarchal aspects of empire in a way a woman does not. 

It is also the fact that Charles has not been so easy to respect as his mother was. To international audiences, he brings to mind his affair and divorce, poor Diana – and, now, suitcases of cash from Qatari sheikhs. The Queen ruling over our country felt a little like Morgan Freeman playing God – divine, inscrutable, with a wink of wisdom in the eyes. She was careful to let on little about what she actually thought. Charles, by contrast, is an interventionist, who was revealed to have sent numerous letters to government ministers setting out his thoughts on the policy of the day in “black spider” handwriting. If he is outspoken on the environment, people will wonder: why isn’t he so outspoken on a matter as egregious and overdue as the legacy of colonialism?

There is at least a sense that Charles is aware of the sentiment he must muster. He is reported to have been vocal, privately, about his disapproval of the government’s Rwanda immigration policy; and at the June Commonwealth summit he expressed hope that we would “acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past”.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

But who knows what he will have to deal with next? In 2013 Britain paid compensation to Kenyans abused in the name of colonialism during the Mau Mau rebellion; in 2019 to Cypriots tortured because they fought for independence during the Cyprus emergency. The Queen might have weathered such incidents – she was remarkably untainted by scandal or failure, even if the same could not be said for her family members. But Charles has already had embarrassments enough, without the embarrassments of empire.

Content from our partners
The cost-of-living crisis is hitting small businesses – Liz Truss must act
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs

[See also: The Queen made us a gentler and kinder country]

Topics in this article: , , ,