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The Queen’s Death: To Mourn Without Love

A year on from the death of the Queen, Hamzah reflects on what it means to mourn.

A year ago, on 8th September, Queen Elizabeth II died. 

At the time, there was plenty of discussion about how we should mark the occasion, enlightened as we were in 2022 by an awareness of the Royal Family’s colonial history and our obligation to face difficult truths relating to race, class and power in this country. For me, this boiled down to a single decision – to post on Instagram or not.

Amidst the discussion online about whether or not it is acceptable to celebrate someone’s death, I would like to weigh in, a year on, as the child of immigrants from within the British Empire, with some thoughts on inheritance, Britishness, and what it means to mourn.

First, the Queen inherited an Empire which was, at its black heart, racist, exploitative and oppressive. The Empire killed millions, extracted trillions of pounds worth of wealth and probably began the process of rapid global climate change. States were chewed up and spat out, incapacitated after independence. Many have not fully recovered from their economic losses alone.

But the majority of Elizabeth II’s reign was spent overseeing the decolonisation of her dominions. Her inheritance, immoral as it was, was not something she could control. And her commitment to the Commonwealth of Nations predicates, fundamentally, that the UK is an equal to the 55 other, sovereign, member states – an idea that Margaret Thatcher did not support. She was not Winston Churchill, whose political actions resulted in the death of millions in Bengal, nor Queen Victoria, in whose name British India was made into a colonial possession. 

The challenging part is what many see in the Queen: the class system enshrined, the superiority of the English, a living reminder of the Empire. The many around the country who were genuinely devastated at her loss could only have known her as a semi-mythical celebrity. As such, it was deeply troubling to see them mourn the Queen as they did; placing her on a pedestal of esteem like a martyr, making remarks about her extraordinary life as though they knew her personally, flouting their grief as though it made them more British.

It was troubling because when we mourned the Queen, we all mourned different things. Some mourned the stability they felt they had lost, others a celebrity they had come to love. But many, I believe, mourned in the nationalist, cult-like fashion that was the philosophy of the British Empire, tinged with divine right and a nostalgia for a bygone age.

I did mourn. For me, the Queen is a temporal link to my family’s colonial history, proof that the country we live in today is the same that ruled over Malawi two generations ago. She is the reason we had passports and a right to live and work in the UK. Without her, it is as though we have lost our place; neither entirely English nor Indian or African, my family is a direct consequence of the global Empire.

To people from her former colonies, Elizabeth II meant a great deal. Whereas the English had the privilege of forgetting about the monarchy’s existence (unless you were accused of a crime), the colonised were constantly reminded of it. State visits by senior royals, like the Queen Mother to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1957, required locals to parade before their rulers. In many British colonies, most of the goods available came from Britain, as the market was strictly controlled. Everywhere one looked one faced a reminder of British colonisation. As was common in England at the time, my grandfather recalls how he was expected to stand and sing ‘God save the Queen’ in the cinema, at the end of every showing. We grieve the Queen, but grief is a lot more than the ‘price we pay for love’. There’s no love lost here.

What is lost is her symbolism, her position as a target with which to criticise all 15 former prime ministers, the social and cultural changes of the last 70 years and the consequences of the last 18 general elections. It is so much easier to concentrate our criticisms on what we think the late Queen represented than it is to figure out how we can address the specific injustices of the Iraq War, and every other atrocity Britain has committed under her rule. 

Although she may have had soft power to influence policy throughout her reign, especially if you believe Netflix’s The Crown, the nature of Britain’s constitutional monarchy meant that she simply acted as the government of the day wished. This includes when she gave Tony Blair a knighthood shortly before her death, even though many in the country would have rather seen him put on trial for an illegal war. She did this because we voted him in as our Prime Minister, and prime ministers are often awarded honours following the end of their term.

Those who saw her death as cause for celebration, or simply didn’t care about it, missed something vital. The poignancy of her death, and the reason that I mourned her loss, is that we are left divided in her absence. Russell Brand said that the Queen bound us to each other and to God. That includes binding us to the part of the country which brought about atrocities. Now, there can never be fair reconciliation for this country’s history under her rule; it might instead happen under Charles or William. The monarchy, and the Empire we have yet to take responsibility for, is our inheritance.

A year on, the growing irrelevance of the monarchy is severing the links between our country and its colonial past without us having first acknowledged it. I worry that King Charles’ unpopularity distracts from the reality that our history has shaped our lives and continues to be important in this country. Much of what we take for granted in this country, especially the wealth we enjoy, is built on a racist past. The Queen’s death has only served to further entrench the divide between those who believe this and those who do not, and soon there will be no hope for reconciliation.

I did, in the end, post on Instagram. I chose a picture in which the Queen was turned away from us, addressing a crowd of thousands in the Commonwealth – her then-subjects. A figurehead for a nation with a grey past.

Image Credits: Communicate New Zealand – National Archives – CNZ Collection // CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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