As with many people, I’ve had conflicting feelings about The Queen. Mostly due to her family and family history.
I felt admiration for the figurehead, Elizabeth II, thrust into a largely ceremonial role as monarch she didn’t want, the same role that is widely thought to have caused the early death of her beloved father. She embodied much that was good, and much that was very bad, about Britain and the British monarchy.
There was nothing ceremonial about the fabulous inherited wealth passed down and around in a royal lineage full of inbred social climbers. Lords and ladies and princes and princesses galivanting around the Commonweath in luxury to cut opening ribbons and give tepid speeches about charities they likely knew little about.
They were interesting, in a TMZ kind of way, as long as you don’t look too deeply in their bloody past to discover where all that money came from. Elizabeth II headed a family who lived their lives in studied indifference as they stepped over a lot of corpses — in Ireland, Africa, India, and elsewhere — to get and keep their money and monarchy.
To take just one example: under British rule, India shifted its focus toward cash crops like cotton, sugar cane, and tobacco that could not feed local populations. They imported food from other parts of the empire to feed its citizens. This policy, combined with the unequal distribution of food, led to 24 famines killing tens of millions between 1850 and 1899 alone.
The policy was not to interfere in grain markets even in time of famine, originating with the economic theories of Adam Smith. Famine relief was to remain as cheap as possible and ideally follow natural market forces. Racism was an influence, as Britain would interfere for their own poor, but never in India unless famines became too severe. The most startling case was the Bengal famine if 1943, which killed up to 3 million people. Britain policy chose not to import extra food into India after Japan took over Burma.
Britain also destroyed the existing system of Indian businesses in favor of British ones who shipped their profits back to Britain, leaving India a nation of servants without generational wealth. This was repeated throughout the British Empire.
Much of Britian’s aristocracy, including the royal family, can trace its generational wealth back to the exploitation of people of color during the British Empire. These are families who should be paying reparations, not staging elaborate garden parties.
Elizabeth II’s sense of duty and decorum contrasted with her dysfunctional family that is the largely the creation of her inability to be the mother and sister she ought to have been. She had a willing helper in husband Phillip, whose notions of masculinity and femininity, power and poverty, were toxic influences on Elizabeth and the rest of the family. (I imagine Elizabeth arriving at the pearly gates, only to be told, “Sorry, that awful Phillip and the equally detestable Queen Mother didn’t make it. But here’s a pack of corgis to lead you inside!)
I understand that, as a constitutional monarch, her functional power over day-to-day British politics was limited. And that too much overt public meddling might have caused problems of another kind for the Crown. But what behind-the-scenes powers she did have she did not use wisely when they were most needed. She was also a bigot on other issues — hello, gay rights? — although with age she seemed to mellow out of some of those.
I think the most interesting thing to happen in her last year of life was when she announced that, on her death, as son Charles ascended to the throne, his wife Camilla was to be known as Queen Consort.
That was huge.
Camilla, the divorcee (nee adulteress) whose sneaking around with Charles contributed greatly to all the drama and infighting that would eventually lead to the death of Princess Diana, would be given a title nobody thought possible at the time Elizabeth’s father was thrust onto the throne by her uncle The King choosing his love for an American social climber. He chose her over his monarchy because the Church of England would never allow him to marry a divorcee.
I wonder if The Queen finally confided to someone near the end of her life that she realized it all didn’t have to happen the ways that it did. The abdication. The early death of a much-loved father not emotionally equipped to be King. Her becoming the Queen she never thought she would be. Charles being miserable with a first wife he did not have to choose. The traffic accident that night in a Paris tunnel that killed the most beloved member of the royal family.
In any case, I still think the monarchy is outdated and silly. I’ll not be watching the funeral nor the coronation.
But I understand what The Queen meant to millions of her subjects who loved her and her reign. Then there are the countless others around the world who felt a connection to her as a diminutive grandmother figure in dowdy hats.
So I’ll not be whining about the non-stop coverage because, to much of the white world, she was and will always be the only Queen who mattered to them. That makes for a bit of understandable public keening and wailing, even though I’m going to ignore what amount of it I can.