Let’s play a word association game. What words pop into your head when you think of the royal family? Bunting? Britishness? Buckingham Palace?
Those weren’t the words that came to my mind during the pomp and pageantry of the Queen’s birthday parade on Saturday. As I watched our 91-year-old head of state looking like a harmless, human petit four atop her chariot, I failed to share the euphoria of the adoring crowds lining Pall Mall for a peek of Her Majesty.
A while back, I stumbled upon a stash of newspapers published during the time of the Queen’s coronation in a charity shop. As you’ll have gathered by now, I’m no monarchist but thought I’d buy them to keep as an interesting historical record – not to mention the fact that I might be able to sell them for a few bob once the old bird croaks. What can I say? Watching too many episodes of Bargain Hunt as a student turned me into a bootleg David Dickinson.
What I had stumbled upon however, was a fascinating glimpse of the roots of the colonial nostalgia our country continues to be afflicted by. The newspaper included “voices from the colonies” – in short, an array of unctuous declarations of love and appreciation to King/Queen and country from its colonised “beneficiaries”. Warning: you might want to have a sick bucket to hand.
“Many of my people hardly know the meaning of ‘Commonwealth’. But we love the Queen with loyal hearts. We remember her wedding, when the people cut pictures from the magazines to hang on the mud walls of their huts” – Akua Asaabea Ayisi, Gold Coast
“The King was admired in Africa as a model monarch. Many African tribes regarded him as a protector and called him ‘The Great White Father’. Soon they will regard his daughter as the Mother of the African peoples.” – Mahommed Omar Hashi, Somaliland
“Our country may be in a far corner of the Empire, but we feel very close to the Royal family. On Coronation Day there will be crocodiles of children in white skirts parading in Albert Park. Even London will not be gayer.” – Ronald Regan, Fiji
Everything has to be taken in context, of course. It was 1953, and a tidal wave of independence movements were to follow. But if this was the information being fed back to the “motherland”, is it any wonder imperial nostalgia persists?
How does that translate to the situation today? Well, a recent YouGov poll found that 59% of Brits think the British Empire is something to be proud of. 34% also said they would like it if Britain still had an empire. It also helps to explain the confidence behind the Government’s assumption that we’d be able to waltz back to our former Commonwealth trade links post Brexit (“Empire 2.0”). In the words of David Olusoga, “Empire 2.0 is a fanciful vision of the future based on a distorted misremembering of the past. It’s a delusion and, like all delusions, has the potential to lure us into a false sense of security and lead us to make bad decisions.”
The fact is that the contribution of empire and subsequent immigration to the prosperity of today’s Britain is underplayed at best, totally disregarded at worst. It is missing from our media, our history lessons, our common knowledge. As observed by Indian MP and author Shashi Tharoor: “It is a British problem, first of all because there is so much historical amnesia about what the empire really entailed.” Particularly in the midst of recent anti-immigration rhetoric in the UK, it’s easier to close our eyes and ears to the fact that Britain would not have been ‘Great’ if it wasn’t for the vast human and material wealth extracted from far flung corners of her fiefdom. In the words of Stuart Hall, “[we]are here because you were there”.
Today, the Queen is still the Head of the Commonwealth, at the symbolic helm of 52 member states. She remains the monarch of 16 of those members, some of which revel in the nostalgia, romanticism, pomp and ceremony of royal occasions as much as the staunchest of Brits. I certainly don’t get it, but who am I to rain on someone’s Pall Mall parade?
Last year, a colleague organised a small office celebration to mark the Queen’s 90th. I’d never turned down a fondant fancy in my life, but I just couldn’t bring myself to join the festivities. So there I was at my desk, cake-less and questioning my British credentials.
Yes, my lefty political leanings play a significant part in my reluctance to celebrate any institution based on hereditary privilege and rank. But it’s deeper than that. Despite the best efforts of the royal family to show a more modern face to the world, I struggle to separate them from their legacy of empire and imperialism. I can’t help but wonder how much of their wealth came off the bloody backs of my ancestors, and other far flung jewels in Britain’s crown. For those of us who are the human fruits of the former British Empire, will that association ever wane?
My heebie-jeebies get all the more chronic when the Queen’s Birthday Honours list is announced and the CBEs (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), OBEs (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) and MBEs (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) are divvied out. Those outdated titles reek of moth balls and oppression to me – why on earth are they still bandied about as a mark of respectability?
As summed up by poet Benjamin Zephaniah after his public refusal to collect an OBE in 2003: “I get angry when I hear that word ’empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”
From where I stand, the royals will always represent an exclusive brand of “Britishness” that I could never hope – or want – to be a part of. Even if Harry does take one of us lot home to meet the ma’am.