Elizabeth II: A Symbol of Empire

On September 8th 2022, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, more commonly known by her royal title of Queen Elizabeth II, passed away. She was 96 and had lived a long life defined by the heights of privilege and wielded immense power, even if largely ceremonial. In the recent days after her passing, much has been made of her commitment to charity and service as a way of helping the British monarchy make the transition into a new era. In that process she became the global face not only of the British royal family, but of the United Kingdom as a whole.

That is all very well and good. I won’t decry those who mourn her. There is no doubt that her unswerving devotion to “duty” made her an important symbol, particularly for people in the United Kingdom. Her death will likely only compound the various financial, political, and social crises that the country is facing. But I feel ill at ease with the hagiographical portrayal of her “reign” and the ceremonial pomp associated with her succession.

As socialists, contrary to what the British Labour Party may believe,we can have little doubt that the monarchy is an institution contrary to all of our basic values. Elizabeth II earned neither title nor wealth through the strength of her character or fruits of her labor. She was born into the role, a role that was always going to be hers and only hers by the nature of her parentage. That level of hereditary privilege and status is bizarre even in a capitalistic society. Even the mightiest oil baron can be brought low by a financial crash, scandal, or mismanagement. On the other hand, a royal family subsidized by public coffers will always enjoy some degree of wealth and power. That is unconscionable in a country where nearly 4 million children live in poverty. That Elizabeth’s funeral and corresponding period of mourning has dug into more public money and shuttered economic activity at a time when the United Kingdom is facing its worst cost-of-living crisis since the Second World War is even more of a disgrace.

Leaving aside that basic ideological distaste for monarchy as an institution, as many commentators from the Global South and elsewhere have noted, Elizabeth II and the British royal family are fundamentally intertwined with one of the most expansive empires in world history. Contrary to popular claims, this was not an empire that was somehow more righteous or noble than its peers. It oversaw more than its fair share of atrocities, exploitation, and extraction. This is not ancient history. Elizabeth II may not have established the empire “on which the sun never sets but the blood never dries,” nor did she preside over its heights. But the empire was still very much alive when she took the throne. As she said on her 21st birthday, speaking in South Africa a year before apartheid was instituted, she was prepared to devote her life to “the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

This notion that the British Empire was a family with a nominal and benevolent head is, of course, laughable. The empire plundered the wealth of the Indian subcontinent, stealing an estimated 45 trillion dollars in today’s money. Around 1700, before becoming colonized, India under the Mughal dynasty accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product, roughly proportionate to its share of the world population. In 1947, it accounted for about 2%. The British Empire was one of the largest players in the transatlantic slave trade, which, coupled with new resources from the Americas helped to later pave the way for its industrial wealth. Though it outlawed the practice well before the United States, Britain only compensated the already well-off owners of slaves and not formerly enslaved people themselves. Even after slavery, it instituted harsh regimes of labor and capital extraction throughout its holdings, consistently undermined the sovereignty of Asian and African states, and oversaw disastrous famines everywhere from Ireland to Bengal.

When Elizabeth became queen in 1952, the British Empire was still composed of more than 70 overseas territories, many of them in Africa. Besides serving as a U.S. handmaiden in initiating coups against Iran and elsewhere, the British continued to rule their empire with a brutality contrary to the social democracy that began to thrive on the home isles. In Kenya, the British violently repressed the Mau Mau uprising. In what is now Malaysia, it launched a scorched-earth campaign against guerrilla rebels. In Yemen, it secretly supported royalist forces in a long-lasting civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives. In Hong Kong, British police officers – later given the royal charter in recognition of their “service” – put down left-wing protests. Ironically, British laws against sedition in Hong Kong are the very laws that the Chinese government now invokes in its own repression of the city. Indeed, what is striking is that in many former British colonies, British sedition laws continue to be invoked by postcolonial regimes to suppress dissidents and secessionists. That there are secessionists or civil wars at all in these former colonies is also usually the direct result of British mismanagement.

Elizabeth II did not order any of these acts. Under the ill-defined British constitution, her powers were incredibly limited in scope and chiefly symbolic. This is not about direct culpability, however. Symbols carry great weight. Not once did the Queen utter an apology for the crimes of empire, either those that happened before her time or the ones that happened while she was the head of state. Despite her sidestepping of most politics, the Queen has in fact gotten involved in politics before. There are rumors she was unhappy with Thatcherism. She obliquely opposed Scottish independence in 2014. There were rumors she disliked Princess Diana’s push to help HIV victims. Despite the limitations imposed on her by British constitutional norms, Elizabeth II could have used her status to protest the crimes committed in her name and the name of her forebears, whether blood relatives or not, given that the Windsors have only held the throne since 1901. 

There is, in fact, some precedent for just that. The Japanese royal family was also the perpetrator of terrible crimes. Indeed, Emperor Hirohito was arguably more culpable for the atrocities committed under his reign than his British equivalents, as both his officials and even family members admitted. He remained relatively unrepentant after the war, and only half-heartedly apologized for the actions of the Japanese Empire on a few occasions. Despite that, he had the sense to reject the worst tendencies of Japanese politics, notably boycotting the infamous Yasukuni Shrine once it began to enshrine Japanese war criminals. His son and grandson have followed suit. In fact, his successor, Akihito, has gone much farther. Although only a child during the Second World War, he was much more openly apologetic about the Japanese Empire’s crimes before stepping down in 2019. He arguably came close to breaching his strictly nonpolitical role by issuing an apology–against the wishes of Japanese conversative politicians–to the Korean people in 1990, just a year after he took the throne. In 1992, he visited China and also apologized. He continued to visit various wartime sites throughout his thirty-year tenure and expressed remorse on behalf of the Japanese people and his family. His nonpolitical role prevented him from issuing a strong and formal direct apology or promises of reparations. Only the Japanese government has the authority to do so, and it has resolutely failed to. Despite that, Akihito courted controversy by even publicly, if subtly, opposing efforts to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, warning the country not to turn its back on its renunciation of war. 

These are all symbolic actions and cannot make up for the failure of the Japanese government to properly address the legacies of Japanese imperialism. Nor is this to say that Akihito’s actions were enough or that the Japanese monarchy should exist. Far from it; that Hirohito was exonerated and allowed to remain emperor was largely the result of U.S. desires to avoid empowering the Japanese Left and to keep the occupied country in its sphere of influence, though there is evidence that the man himself sought to abdicate. But that even the Japanese monarchy saw it fit to issue an apology to the victims of Japanese imperialism shows that there was much more that the British royal family, and indeed the United Kingdom as a whole, could have done to reckon with its role in the imperial enterprise. In the absence of a concerted push by the British Left to embrace its traditional republican role, the renewed conversations about British colonialism and its legacies should be used to push the British government, including its new king, to redress its victims. As the Irish socialist and revolutionary James Connolly wrote about Elizabeth’s grandfather, George V: “We will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights, by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes.”

Charles should pay heed.