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Cool Subjects: The Other Side of Elizabeth II’s Reign

Global, personal, individual. The reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth II seemed to catch even unsuspecting republicans off guard. In Australia, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had led the Australian Republic Movement, was a mess of reflection on the passing. The old enemy France glowed with a distant familial warmth. In the United States, monarchical fetishism reasserted itself.

Not all the reflections were rosy. In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters party admitted no mourning for the passing of the monarch of seven decades, “because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history. Britain, under the leadership of the Royal Family, took over control of this territory that would become South Africa in 1795 from Batavian control, and took permanent control of the territory in 1806.” From then, the native populace knew no peace, nor “enjoyed the fruits of the riches of this land, riches were and still are utilized for the enrichment of the British royal family and those who look like them.”

Negative commentary, notably of the brisk too-soon mould, caused sparks and retributive anger. When news of Elizabeth II’s deteriorating condition reached critical race theorist and Carnegie Mellon academic Uju Anya on September 8, she jumped on Twitter with menacing enthusiasm. “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” In the room next door, grant applications for future funding were probably being written.

The comment, even if academically toothless, was enough to stir empire building types such as the amoral Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos. In confounded fashion, he asked whether this was “someone supposedly working to make the world better […] I don’t think so.” Anya, unrepented, suggested that the Queen had “supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family.” As for Bezos, the bilious academic hoped that those who had suffered harm from his “merciless greed” would “remember you as fondly as I remember my colonizers.” On that score, many would agree.

In India, the historical site of controversial debates about the British monarchy, responses varied between lukewarm recognition to tangy irritation. The government of Narendra Modi declared a day of mourning on Sunday, with flags to fly at half-staff. But on closer inspection of social media chatter, Sucheta Mahajan of Jawaharlal Nehru University could detect little by way of effusive tear-filled adoration. There was “a lot of discussion but not much concern.” The passing was not treated as one of “an important world leader. After all, she did not call the shots.”

In 1997, when the late Queen made her third and last visit to India, much debate was provoked by the visit to Jallianwala Bagh. In April 1919, this site in the northern city of Amritsar was bloodied by the actions of the British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, who ordered troops to fire upon a gathering of thousands of Indians that resulted in the deaths of, according to an official report, 379 men, women and children.

Did such a visit amount to an apology for the past sins of empire? Hardly, if we are going by the remarks she made at a New Delhi state banquet held just prior to the visit. “It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our pasts – Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”

The statement is strikingly bereft of sorrow and filled with understatement. Build on gladness; forget the sadness. British rule over India offered more than just “distressing” examples. And “sadness” is certainly one numbing way of looking at an atrocity, not to mention various decisions made with telling consequences.

Indian historian and politician Shashi Tharoor is one who has elaborated an extensive laundry list of British sins, noting how the empire imposed a system of rule and economy on a pre-existing, rich society of agrarian sophistication largely for self-enriching goals. Far from civilising native subjects, British rule was marked by impoverishment, its trains decidedly governed by military self-interest, its governing policy one of constipated, selective inclusion.

Distinctions, however, are drawn between the occupant of a constitutional monarchy, and the government that used her name to prosecute a policy. Specific to Elizabeth II, Tharoor noted a “largely ceremonial” reign executed with “uncommon grace, her conduct on the throne marked by a selfless serenity, a total self-abnegation and devotion to the public trappings of her position.” In her rule, she seemed to be a consummate expression of Walter Bagehot’s formulation of a constitutional monarch’s three rights: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.

Indians had tried to learn and forgive, for the most part, the “cruelties of colonialism”, with some even valuing the British connection. But the Queen could be faulted for never once acknowledging, let alone apologising, for “those centuries of colonial plunder and cruelty that made her position and wealth possible.”

Where, then, did she figure in the Bagehot scheme of consulting, encouragement and warning regarding British actions in Kenya in the use of concentration camps to break the Mau Mau rebellion, or the suppression of Communists in the Malaysian Emergency? The Westminster shroud, in this regard, is thick indeed, a layer of forced exculpation.

In that curious sense, the constitutional monarch could derive the profits of plunder yet disclaim responsibility. Monarchs, Tharoor noted, “did not actually order any of these things.” It followed that the Queen did not have to apologise for them, though a sovereign’s good sense might have demanded it.

As to what’s left of any republican sentiment, the Irish politician Clare Daly, Member of the European Parliament, put it well in expressing her “deepest sympathies and solidarity with republicans living under British rule.” The forthcoming weeks would prove hard, “but it will pass.” Maybe a bit wistfully, she suggested that the “day will come.” Those days always do, but Queen Liz has made it that much more difficult.



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  1. New England Cocky

    The Queen is dead. Long live the Australian Republic with an Australian borne Head of State.

  2. Kathryn

    Whilst we all admired the late Queen Elizabeth II, she was, in reality, the Queen of England and should NEVER EVER have been referred to as the Queen of Australia. Her loyalties were ALWAYS wholly and solely to the UK – as they should be – and never to our multicultural nation of Australia! The fact is that the overbearing and inhibiting imperialistic snobbery and elitism, so thoroughly entrenched within the British culture, is foreign and, indeed, offensive to most egalitarian citizens in our fair-minded nation of Australia where many migrants from all over Europe, the Middle East and every corner of Asia have absolutely NO allegiance or loyalty to the Queen or the royal family in general! There are many good reasons WHY so many British citizens are desperate to emigrate to Australia to escape the stifling classist snobbery that the Royal family helps to engender.

    Now that the good Queen has died, it is now OVER TIME that our nation finally grew a spine, stood up and finally cut the apron strings from our rather neglectful “mother” England and became a Democratic Republic. One of the REAL advantages of Australia becoming a Democratic Republic is that we will finally be rid of the onerous, and very expensive, imperialistic, corrupt, LNP-supporting role of Governor General! The manner in which the disgraceful David Hurley conspired with that political psychopath, Scott Morrison, when he signed off and facilitated Morrison’s undemocratic grab for total control over at least five (or more) portfolios, absolutely reeks of fascism! Before that appalling incident, we had the serial drunk, John Kerr who, as a notorious GG played a major role in Malcolm Fraser’s now notorious, destructive, horrendous and self-serving dismissal of the democratically elected Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party in 1975 – a fascist move that divided our nation for decades! History has shown that Gough Whitlam was, in fact, the best and highest achieving PM in our nation’s political history which makes the conspiratorial, self-promoting autocracy of the Kerr/Fraser dismissal even MORE reprehensible.

    Indeed, the blatantly conservative governor generals have so much in common with their allies inthe LNP in that they have achieved absolutely NOTHING to benefit ordinary working- and middle-class Australian citizens but, rather, just suck off the weeping wound of the Australian taxpayer purse! The Governor General role is loaded with pomposity, sanctimonious hypocrisy and they have proven themselves to be nothing more than nodding, vacuous puppets to the deplorable, remorseless and depraved agenda of the diabolical LNP.

    IT’S TIME AUSTRALIA BECAME A REPUBLIC! Even as a Democratic Republic, Australia can STILL choose to remain in the Commonwealth. It’s just that we have far more autonomy WITHOUT the unwanted scheming and interference by the Governor General who is, after all, an UNELECTED imperialist working and collaborating with the corrupt, sanctimonious elitists in the LNP!

  3. wam

    They lying rodent made it clear he was nor accepting any responsibility for previous gov decisions(nor his own shockers). The queen went closer to apologising for Jallianwala Bagh but shouldn’t take the blame for crooks who misuse her name??
    A US citizen—whether he or she is born in the United States or becomes a naturalized citizen—cannot be deported.
    Born ln australia.
    a child who is born in Australia but is not a citizen or permanent resident can be detained and deported under the Migration Act
    Children born in Australia, with a birth certificate issued in Australia, are not automatically Australian citizens or Australian permanent residents.
    In the last 50 years, only Ninian Stephen, a pomme, was not an Australian born GG.
    Do you, and kathryn support Australian giving politicians carte blanche(ops sorry canga) to create a republic?
    You have to love federal and state pollies the arseholes take the week off to ‘mourn’ and give us 22/9.

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