“Far-called our navies melt away —
On dune and headland sinks the fire —
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.”
So wrote poet and Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond Jubilee in 1897. On this occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, I say — “Not so fast.”
It may be observed that of the world-historical leaders of Great Britain, two of the three most effective and consequential were women: Queen Elizabeth I, who saved England from foreign domination and probable destruction in the 16th Century; Winston Churchill, who saved his country — and perhaps the rest of us — from Hitler and the Nazis; and Margaret Thatcher, who revived a declining nation and reasserted the greatness of Great Britain. Churchill, toward the end of his political career, and Thatcher were Prime Ministers of our Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps because of her 70-year long reign, and the stability she lent in what were by any standard tumultuous times, we can add the late Queen to the list.
Among the commentaries heard and read, proffered so far are those voices who decry the very existence of the British monarchy as undemocratic and archaic and the vestige of a brutal and rapacious empire that conquered and enslaved half the world. That is to be expected. There is money to be made by continuing to pick at the scabs of healing past wrongs — “wrong” being defined by present standards of certain political persuasion. Pay them no mind, except to be aware of their existence and not fall for their nonsensical vowel movements.
As for the British Monarchy being archaic, well, that is the point. Since the accession of King George I around 300 years ago, the monarchy has been mainly ceremonial, with the political power vesting in Parliament. That arrangement has the monarchy more useful and survivable in the subsequent two centuries, during which many others in Europe and elsewhere fell. Looking back from that time, most of the crises in English/British history, most notably the 1066 Norman Conquest, and in the long-running 15th Century Wars of the Roses, were the result of disputed succession. Since Queen Anne died in 1714, there’s been no dispute over who succeeds to the throne upon the monarch’s death. The vagaries of political shifts occur, sometimes tumultuously, but the Crown endures. Much political rancor is avoided when it is not necessary to elect the head of state.
Of course, much of this depends upon the character and behavior of the monarch. Henry VIII, and any of the kings of France prior to the revolution, could not have lasted one week from the 18th Century forward. Great Britain evolved into a parliamentary democracy within the overall framework of a symbolic monarchy. Stability during profound change was in many ways a result of those wearing the British Crown. Elizabeth II, in large part because of her 70-year reign, but also because of her character, proved to be most accomplished in that regard. But her predecessors, notably Victoria and the most recent Georges (Elizabeth’s father and grandfather) provided that stability when it was needed.
As for the British Empire, to paraphrase William Faulkner, it is not dead, it is not even past. It is true that political domination of the Empire’s colonies is no more. But the cultural influence is manifest. If not the largest by the sheer numbers of individuals who speak it, read it, and write it, as a first or secondary language, English is the language of diplomacy, air commerce, most international business transactions, and now, the Internet. Because of the facility the English language obtained by cross-fertilization — and dare I say it, cultural appropriation — from many places throughout the world, English will continue to be dominant. If for no other reason (and there are many) the sun has not, and will not, ever set on the now soft power, of the Empire.
“Come Nineveh; Come Tyre”? Not for a while.
Along with language, the British brought a political and legal system that emphasizes individual rights and due process, not only to North America and the Pacific nation-islands, but also to many African and South Asian nations. Whether those systems have been, and are being, administered imperfectly and unevenly, is beside the point. The systems are there, and available as a framework to provide justice and protect life, liberty, and property. They have quite often done so in a manner superior to whatever they replaced.
King Charles III, together with his Prime Minister, will face the Sceptered Isle’s many challenges throughout the coming years, and probably decades. Charles has been considerably less popular among Britons than his mother was. That could change if he refrains from doing something barbarous. It does appear that he is off to a good start.
The Queen’s last official act was to appoint the new Prime Minister. Interestingly, the appointee is another Elizabeth, although she is popularly and officially known by her nickname Liz. One wonders if that was deliberate, so as to avoid confusion with her previous now late Queen. Anyway, Ms. Truss has challenges before her even more formidable than those for Charles. Great Britain could be at the point where it really needs another Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher. Is Liz up to the task? For her, as well as the King, we will see.
Will the monarchy be abolished at some point? It is doubtful. No one in Britain who has any real influence is that stupid. The symbolism and cultural value to the British people aside, the pomp and splendor have great economic value for export and visitors from abroad who spend a lot of money there. Without the now King (and future successors to the throne) a visit to the United Kingdom would have all the panache of a trip to New Jersey.
As for our late Queen Elizabeth II, as she lies in state, to paraphrase another English poet, “She had a lovely face, God in his mercy lend her grace.” She had enough grace to lend us all. May she rest in peace.
The lead-in quote is from Kipling’s poem “Recessional”
“Come Nineveh Come Tyre” is the title of Allan Drury’s 1965 dystopian novel in his series that began with “Advise and Consent”
The paraphrase in the final paragraph is from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott”
Native speakers of Chinese outnumber native English speakers, but not when combined with those whose second language is English. Anyway, most commerce between China and the rest of the world is conducted in English.
The Monarch has the theoretical power to veto a bill of Parliament. The last time that was used was by Queen Anne in 1707. It is difficult to imagine a time it would be appropriate and not provoke a constitutional crisis. One power the Queen, and now the King, could use when necessary is to choose a Prime Minister in the event of a hung Parliament; that is, no leader has majority. Elizabeth II used that power once when it was necessary to form a government in Australia.