CHENNAI: I declare before you all that my whole life, whether long or short, will be devoted to your service and to the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong. Princess Elizabeth is said to have cried during the first reading of this speech. Marking her 21st birthday and broadcast in 1947 from a bougainvillea-strewn garden in Cape Town, it heralded the future incarnation of the young royal of Britain, her Empire and the Commonwealth. At the time, demands for independence were igniting across the post-war empire. India and Pakistan were on the verge of breaking free from British colonial rule, but Clement Attlee’s Labor government had no intention of collapsing elsewhere. Britain had embarked on a policy of imperial resurgence, aimed at rebuilding a fiscally devastated post-war nation and claiming Big Three status on the backs of the empire’s colonized population.
For more than a century, Britain’s claims to world greatness were rooted in its empire, considered unique among all others. Spanning a quarter of the world’s landmass, the British Empire was the largest in history. From spearheading the abolitionist movement, Britain became the purveyor of liberal imperialism, or a “civilizing mission”, extending developmentalist policies, which clung to racial hierarchies, to its 700 millions of colonized subjects, claiming to bring them into the modern world. Celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, the Platinum Jubilee is charged with meaning about the nation’s imperial past and the monarchy’s over-determined role in it. Large memorials and statues celebrating the heroes of the empire proliferated after the Victorian era, and London became an imperial and royal memorial parade ground. Now it’s the center stage of the Queen’s unprecedented celebration at a time when the long-simmering wars of imperial history – with the public, politicians, scholars and media hotly contesting the meanings, lived experiences and legacies of the British Empire – are exploding.
Protesters in Britain have taken to the streets, to the floor of Parliament and to the media, demanding racial justice and a colonial settlement. Dressed in black masks, some marched through London’s Parliament Square in June 2020, chanting “Churchill was a racist”. They stopped at the Prime Minister’s statue, crossing out his name with spray paint and replacing it with the damning words chanted.
In few other countries does imperial nationalism endure with such explicit social, political and economic consequences. Angry at Britain’s ‘decolonisation’ movements, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative party’s Brexit campaign have touted a vision of ‘global Britain’, an Empire 2.0. “I can’t help but remember that this country over the past 200 years has led the invasion or conquest of 178 countries – that’s most of the members of the UN,” he said. he declared. “I believe global Britain is a soft power superpower and we can be hugely proud of what we are achieving.”
Debates over the meanings and legacies of the British Empire are not new. However, recent crises collide with a singular occasion of royal splendor, illuminating the discrepancies between fact and fiction, lived realities and the creation of imperial myths, and the historically entrenched role of the monarch as an avatar of the British Empire. Yet the Queen’s role as head of the Commonwealth is no more than a title. It has no constitutional function and is not, a priori, inherited by its successor. What is hereditary, however, is the monarch’s role as symbolic head of state for the 15 nations that make up the Commonwealth realm.
What becomes clear, however, is the role of the global audience. To understand how and why Britain shaped the modern world, it must not shy away from the complicated relationship between monarchy, nation and empire, and the untold suffering it inflicted on colonized populations across the world. Rather, he must unravel and understand this complex web of power and its sprawling legacies despite or because of his reverence for Queen Elizabeth II.