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