Attitudes to the British Empire are greatly divided. If you were part of that Empire you do not have a lot to be thankful for. The problem for modern Britain is that some of the most powerful countries on the planet have been damaged by and hold no great lingering affection for its lost empire. The U.S, India, South Africa, Russia, Saudi, and China have had wars with Britain. There are many more, much smaller, that could be mentioned.
However, if you are British a great deal of your identity is sublimated in the Empire. Quite a lot of English people are nostalgic and enthusiastic about the British Empire. For them the Empire was a glorious period, a time when Britain excelled. In this conception of things, Britain was bringing civilisation, in Kipling’s words, to “lesser breeds without the law.” The British celebrity historian Niall Ferguson wrote an accomplished book on the Empire titled Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, but even he does not often list it alongside his global bestsellers such as the Ascent of Money. Ferguson’s Empire book was the subject of telling criticism from colleague historians drawn from countries that were previous British colonies. He tries to be balanced but it is impossible to put an overly positive gloss on a particularly savage past.
The rehearsed, media-led, emotional outbreak over the death of Queen Elizabeth II is all to do with longevity and a bounding, eternal connection with a monarch who grew up in the shadow of the second world war.
If there is one event in England that conjures up all that dormant imperial spirit it is of course the annual ‘Last night of the Proms’ broadcast live by the BBC from the Royal Albert Hall in central London. The event gives free rein to the audience to delightedly wave Union Jacks and join in the proverbial anthems of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and of course God Save the Queen, which will now change to King. It is middle class patriotism alongside a slight jingoistic yearning for the past, all done in a night’s fun and simultaneously broadcast on big screens in the United Kingdom’s national capitals – London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.
Like the recent obsequies for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the event could be interpreted as rather over the top. It is the ritual and literal role of the modern day monarchy to throw a pleasing fig leaf of pageantry around the notion that Britain still has some form of global power and influence – even if the prosaic reality is that power has shifted further west to Washington D.C and east to Beijing, not to mention Brussels. The Empire is no more; the extended period of mourning for the deceased monarch had the noisy echo of ancient history being played out in a country that is rapidly resembling an imperial museum.
The UK’s obsession with Royalty is genuinely puzzling to those outside looking in. The amount of media, newspaper and television coverage devoted to the goings on of the Royals seems a distraction from more significant issues affecting Britain. It is as if the British media and public cling to such shibboleths like a life belt rather than contemplate or consider the cold stormy seas that year on year increasingly take the great out of Great Britain. The decline curve in Britain has taken another steep drop since the 2016 referendum when they voted to remove themselves from the European Union. The decision to quit the European trading bloc, thus exacerbating its soaring trade deficits, is viewed by level-headed diplomats, both British and non-British, as a piece of madness or the act of a nation hell bent on self-harm.
The rehearsed, media-led, emotional outbreak over the death of Queen Elizabeth II is all to do with longevity and a binding, eternal connection, with a monarch who grew up in the shadow of the second world war. Apart from the Royal family, the other compelling subject matter that is lovingly repeated time and time again over the British airwaves and media, are the endless documentaries that suggest that Britain alone won the last world war. This pleasing fiction takes little or no consideration of the fact that it was lost Russian lives and American money that paid the biggest price in that conflict. It clearly pains ordinary Britons that the biggest beneficiaries of that war were, perhaps perversely, the U.S., the Soviet Union and within a few decades a newly energised industrial giant in the shape of a reunified Federalised Germany – the behemoth of the EU economically.
It is almost a cliche at this stage to quote the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson when he stated in the 1950s that ‘Britain had lost an Empire but not yet found a role.’ The quotation remains pertinent. The role model of the monarchy and its many splendours continues in its own merry way to feed a public delusion that the UK is a far greater power in the world than it actually is. “Part of the British royal family’s success is as the world’s longest-running soap opera. With the proviso that the entertainment should never deflect from the faux-sanctity that surrounds the throne, part of royalty’s job is not to be boring,” according to author Matthew Engel writing in the Financial Times.
The reaction from people on hearing of the late, lamented monarch’s death was testament to the value of having a titular or symbolic head of state who is punctilious in being above partisan politics and therefore able to provide a certain stability in the topsy turvy world of the public realm. The monarch has no power, can allocate no resources but can endorse and encourage worthy as well as good civic behaviour. The British monarch’s modus operandi is to provide a lot of pomp and ceremony to the role. It, the monarchy, can even argue by way of self-justification that the institution is good for business, tourism, investment and the image of Britain. The new incumbent King Charles III, is already making the case for a slimmed down monarchy – perhaps more in keeping with his own modest ambitions around the environment, architectural heritage and excluded communities.
Charles III comes with a long apprenticeship and of course difficult experiences in his own personal life. Much damaged over his treatment of his first wife, the late Princess Diana, he has lived to succeed to the throne and has emerged with a modicum of respect which if he does not intrude too much into the public field may chime well with a reduced or slimmed down monarchy. He is one of the first members of his family to attend university, Cambridge no less. Those that come into close contact with him state he is intelligent. Those that have not been in contact with him conclude that he is stupid mainly it seems because of his ponderous and boring style of speech.
Those that advocate for an abolition of the monarchy in the UK are an extreme minority. They have as little chance of seeing change in the UK as have people who argue for a radical transformation of an institution like the Vatican in Rome. Foolish or not as might be the case, ordinary Brits are well pleased with their constitutional arrangements and are in no hurry to change them. The fact that the UK has had four different prime ministers over the past few years underlines the stability provided by the monarchy.
Britain’s role in international matters may still prove to be influential but not anything like it used to be. It is now a middle ranking power separated from the European continent. The historic role applied by itself to itself for hundreds of years prior to the 20th century’s catastrophic world wars, was to preserve the balance of power in an otherwise fractious and divided European continent. That role was cast aside in its decision to abscond from the European economic realm. There is an implicit recognition of this in Charles’ decision to have a slimmed down monarchy. The reality is that the next few years may feature the departure of both Scotland and Northern Ireland from the union, as well as a breakup of Commonwealth Nations. That of itself implies a downsizing of Britain’s overseas ambitions. Behind the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy is the threadbare reality of a country that is declining in many, many ways.