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The Meaning of Monarchy by Harrison Pitt

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The Meaning of Monarchy

Princess Elizabeth preparing to make a 21st birthday speech on the radio on April 21, 1947, from Cape Town, South Africa, in which she promised her people that "my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”

Over 16,000 street parties took place across England last week in honour of the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. People set aside any differences they might have with their neighbours and came together for a shared experience of belonging. One of the virtues of monarchy is that it makes this feeling of collective membership a constant fixture in British life.

This is less feasible in the United States. Presidents are generally speaking too divisive, too bogged down in the ugly mire of day-to-day politics, to serve as hallowed symbols of the country. Perhaps the closest things that the Americans have to monarchical ritual in their calendar are Inauguration Day and the State of the Union Address. Respectively, these resemble the British coronation ceremony and the State Opening of Parliament. The only problem is that, whereas in Britain these occasions are marked by majesty, grace, and an unshakeable sense of togetherness, their American equivalents have become exceedingly grubby, small-minded affairs.

No crowd of lawless nitwits felt forced to storm Buckingham Palace to disrupt the Royal Trooping of the Colour. Yet this is exactly what happened on 6 January 2021, when a minority of Donald Trump’s supporters caused chaos in the Capitol building to protest Joe Biden’s certification as President. It would never occur to Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the current Speaker of the House of Commons, to make a pathetic, performative, political party gesture during the Queen’s Speech. Yet this is exactly what his American counterpart Nancy Pelosi did during Trump’s third State of the Union Address, ripping up a copy of his speech in full glare of the cameras.

But in the United Kingdom, even if it is Jubilee season, we save our ‘boos’ for the prime minister, his wife—if it feels appropriate—and most certainly for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who dared to show their faces at a public event held to honour the institution they trashed on global television. Politics is otherwise transcended by the inclusive nature of the festivities.

For the activists who worship politics as a substitute for religious purpose, this is the most hateful part of the Jubilee. We might describe this as the Leninist outlook, named after the leading Russian revolutionary who, it was said, could not even enjoy the splendour of a Beethoven symphony lest it served to distract his mind from the urgency of the Bolshevik cause. In our post-Christian world, there are a considerable number of people for whom the idea of ‘taking a break’ from politics, even to honour the shared identity that makes politics possible, is no less offensive than our ancestors would have found the suggestion that we all forget God for a day.

So it was that Lisa Tilley, who seems to have some kind of teaching role at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), fulminated on Twitter that she took exception to the national festivities that everyone else was rudely enjoying. Tilley argued that the Queen’s consistent display of “grace” and “dignity” throughout her reign is not the sign of a dutiful monarch, but rather a sly disguise for a reactionary enabler of imperialism, massacre, and torture.

It should be said that Tilley belongs to a small minority of people within Britain. The street parties, the crowds, and the widespread jubilation are proof enough of that. Even the vast majority of republican Lefties accept that the present sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, is untouchable. Still, it is worth going through Tilley’s fierce assault on the recent Platinum Jubilee, if for no other reason than that it exposes the hostile activism that now passes for teaching at our publicly funded universities.

She started by attacking the Queen for keeping a “dignified silence” during the Malayan Emergency, the Batang Kali Massacre, the Bengal Famine, and the partition of India. These “atrocities,” Tilley writes, “did not trouble her poise.” 

First, it is worth mentioning that the Queen was a 16-year-old princess during the Bengal Famine (1943) and still only 20 (and uncrowned) when India was partitioned in 1947. Plus, the Bengal Famine was a natural disaster. To call it an “atrocity” (OED: “an extremely wicked or cruel act”) is an abuse of language. In Bengal, the famine was caused by a cyclone that destroyed the rice-crop and forced a near-impossible dilemma upon leaders like Churchill, who during wartime had to make the most difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce resources, especially when hostile Japanese submarines controlled the Bay of Bengal that could sink any allied ship carrying food supplies. For a contextual understanding of the tragedy of Bengal, so easily turned into a moral crusade by ignorant activists from their 21st century comfort, see the following paper. More crucially, the Queen’s involvement was non-existent, as indeed she played no role in the partition of India—a policy that aimed, unsuccessfully, to prevent the British departure (would Tilley rather we had stayed?) from descending into a sectarian bloodbath. 

Tilley is on stronger ground when she condemns British behaviour during the Malayan Emergency. She further argues that the “torture, mass internment and massacres of the Mau Mau”—occasional features of the British reaction to the violent rebellion in Kenya between 1952 and 1960—represent a moral blot on the Queen’s reign. True, the British often acted abominably in Malaya (the Batang Kali Massacre) and Kenya (interrogation techniques that bordered on torture). That said, Tilley conveniently leaves out the monstrous atrocities committed by rebels, particularly in the Mau Mau uprising. These insurgents were not the Kenyan equivalents of Gandhi, but truly vicious murderers, often against their own fellow natives. In the notorious Lari massacre, the Mau Maus murdered native civilians, including men, women, and children. The victims were burned alive in huts and people who tried to escape were hacked down with machetes. 

Decolonization was an ugly and violent process in which nobody involved—neither the colonialists nor the colonised—covered themselves in glory. One individual who was emphatically not involved, however, was Queen Elizabeth II. True, she was and of course remains the official head of state. But her very role is to transcend the ugly, blood-stained reality of war and politics. If people have well-founded criticisms of British imperialism throughout her reign, they would be better off directing their attacks at those involved in shaping it. The majority of the time, of course, the most disgraceful sins of empire were committed under the stress of war by people on the ground in the imperial periphery. There was rarely, if at all, a single guiding intelligence acting from Westminster, still less from Buckingham Palace. People like Tilley make the error of assuming that the Queen must be as political as they are. 

Monarchy is not even purely a conservative symbol. It is a symbol of unity. This is why the State Opening of Parliament includes a charming ceremonial nod to the independence of Parliament from the Crown. In this eccentric national occasion, the representative of the monarch, the Black Rod, has the House of Commons door shut in his face. The more conservative-minded Tories of the late 17th century would find little to admire in the pantomime-ish salute to the radical firebrands of that era, who later took up arms against Charles I. Additionally, Britain has been ruled by more kings with left-wing opinions in the modern age. Before becoming King, George IV, for example, as the Prince Regent George Augustus Frederick was best friends with Charles James Fox, the leading radical Whig of the late 18th century. More crucially, however, the monarchy has a strange power of reconciling the conflict-ridden episodes within our past and elevating them into shared rituals that make us whole. 

The fact that Tilley chose the sovereign as her target, instead of those who were in fact responsible for the various crimes she lists, is proof that her critique of Britain is not well-intended. She cites these tragic events and atrocious actions only because they serve as a convenient pretext for hating her own country and demolishing its most time-honoured institution. Her thread concludes: “Honestly, just abolish the monarchy & all other imperial relics already—this really should not be a radical position in the 21st century!”

In fact, these ferociously anti-British loons should be grateful for the continued existence of the Crown. One of the purposes of monarchy is to act as a consecrated symbol of the nation, both past, present, and future. It is a golden link that extends through our history, fostering a sense of belonging to a long-established community that is greater than us. Without it, or something similar to it, we might be tempted to think of ourselves as little more than an arbitrary set of random individuals born to another arbitrary set of random individuals. Sir Roger Scruton’s “first-person plural,” that pre-political understanding of “we,” would be irrevocably lost. This would be a great sadness for conservatives, who of course believe in reverence for shared customs, traditions, and habitual instincts, all of which can only be transmitted through time and place. 

But in many ways, it would be a far greater disaster for those who despise Britain and its history. After all, the post-colonial neo-Marxists themselves make use of first-person plural language whenever it suits their disloyal purposes. The crimes of slavery, empire, and capitalism—these, according to the wokesters, are not just sinful aspects of the past, but unforgivable stains on our past. Their hatred, in other words, is wholly reliant on the same shared sense of identity, personified by the Crown, that they so loathe and want to abolish. 

How terribly bored these people would be if they got their way.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.