Queen Elizabeth II Leaves Behind a Complicated Legacy
By Austin Morris
The Queen is dead. Long live the controversy. The recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II has brought forth waves of heartfelt tributes as well as condemnations of her conduct and complicity. Both views do a disservice to a woman whose seven-decade rule was more complicated than many are willing to acknowledge.
The Queen, who passed away on September 8th at the age of 96, was for many a figure of dedication – to her family, her faith, the Commonwealth, and most of all, to her people. Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years, through times of turmoil and strife, through war and economic depression, and through the decline and eventual dissolution of the British Empire.
To many, The Queen was the epitome of duty, sacrifice, loyalty, and service. In a 1947 speech to mark her 21st birthday, then-Princess Elizabeth said, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service, and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
Despite these sentiments, however, many people, especially those in former British colonies, do not look upon Queen Elizabeth’s reign with favor. Many took to Twitter to lambast the Queen as the figurehead of a repressive empire that pillaged untold amounts of wealth from peoples and nations across the globe. Some laid the horrors and atrocities committed by British officials squarely at the feet of The Queen, holding her personally responsible.
Here we have the two prevailing perspectives in recent days since the Queen’s death: on the one hand, there is the steadfast public servant and grandmother to a nation, and on the other hand, a villainous colonizer who took advantage of and oppressed millions.
The reality of Elizabeth II’s legacy is far more complicated, however, and raises several questions. Is it fair to hold The Queen personally responsible for the brutalities committed by the British Empire? What are the realities of The Queen and her predecessors’ involvement in the development of the British Empire?
The reality of the situation is this: The Queen, as it was with her father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandmother, had virtually no influence over policy within Great Britain itself, or its empire. The Queen had no prerogative to create laws, dismiss ministers, or directly impact the governing of any colonies. That is a simple fact of the British constitution: the sovereign is a figurehead.
Despite the impotence of The Crown in policymaking, many continue to say that The Queen was still complicit in the brutalities of the British Empire. To this point, consider this quote given by Caroline Elkins, a professor of history at Harvard University, in an interview with Vox, “...there is absolutely no extant documentary evidence directly linking her to knowledge of systematic violence and cover-up in the empire that I’m aware of, and I’ve been studying this for 30 years.”
In fact, later in that same article in Vox, Professor Elkins points out that Prime Ministers had gone as far as to lie to The Queen about events taking place in British colonies. Following the deaths of 11 detainees in a prisoner camp in Kenya, the Prime Minister at the time, Harold McMillan outright lied to The Queen about who was responsible. Elkins says, “And he writes in his diary that afterward he spoke with the queen, and explained to her that this was basically the result of minor officials and not the fault of the colonial secretary at the time, Alan Lennox-Boyd. So what we know from his entry in his diary is that he lied to the queen, because we know Alan Lennox-Boyd was right in the middle of it, that this was not the result of quite minor officials. And that Macmillan himself also knew about this systematic violence and the cover-up that was going on.”
So here we have two points to consider now: First, that The Queen had no authority to dictate any actions, even those done in her name, within the British Empire – an empire that had already reached its peak and began declining before her reign. And second, that British officials deliberately lied to The Queen to hide the realities of the brutalities committed by British officials.
However, despite her lack of authority and despite being misled regarding colonial affairs, the Queen was a potent symbol of that oppressive empire, and her family were certainly some of the biggest beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated by that empire. Professor Elkins says, “One is that the monarchy very much wraps itself up into the empire — deploying its symbols, its images, its familial language (the queen and her predecessors refer to themselves as the matriarch or patriarch of empire).” So, while The Queen may not have directly governed the empire, she was instrumental in the symbolism used as part of the tools British officials used to oppress peoples in the various colonies. For millions, The Queen’s face represents decades of oppression, deprivation, theft, and loss of culture, and that is a legacy that must be reckoned with.
To surmise, The Queen was not making decisions regarding the running of the British Empire, but she was a symbol of that oppressive empire for decades. Furthermore, there is no evidence that The Queen knew the level of support for the brutal acts being carried out by British officials within the upper levels of the British government, but she did benefit from acts being carried out in her name.
The legacy of someone whose life spanned nearly a century and who reigned for seventy years over some of the most tumultuous events in British history is going to be complicated. Aspects of Elizabeth II’s reign may be debated for decades, but to directly blame the Queen for the atrocities of the British Empire would be to overshadow an extremely complex and nuanced period of history. At the same time, one must recognize that, however, little direct role the Queen played in running the empire, she and her family benefited from its existence, and there must be a reckoning based on that.