Monday, 14 November 2022

So The Queen Is Dead

So the Queen is dead, and buried, and we have a new monarch.

I’ve been thinking on this for a while, and as usual, my thoughts have been varied.

On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with people grieving or at least feeling unsettled. For anyone under seventy, including me, she had literally been on the throne our entire lives, and so there was a feeling of shock, of experiencing the end of an era, regardless of individual feelings about royalty. For me, it’s also triggered sad feelings and memories from when my mother died - they were of almost the same generation, and even looked somewhat alike.

It must be acknowledged that the Queen did have many good qualities. She avoided scandal in her private life (unlike a lot of her family), and performed her duties faithfully. She somehow managed to connect with a lot of people despite her privileged position. In person, she was apparently kind, fiercely intelligent, with a steel-trap memory and a great sense of humour. She was, in short, likeable, even admirable, as a person and a monarch.

I also feel that some of the criticism that’s been hurled her way is misplaced. British monarchs have very little real power, being heavily constricted by law, tradition and protocol. They reign but they do not rule. They can’t express any political opinions, and must approve new laws and governments. Even their speeches to the British Parliament are written by the government. It’s anyone’s guess what the Queen’s real political thoughts were, though it’s said that she despised Thatcher for supporting apartheid. Ultimately however she could change little.

As to the royal wealth, ‘The Crown’ and ‘the monarch’ are not quite the same thing. There are things like the Crown Jewels for instance, which the monarch only technically owns, and cannot dispose of at will. The Royal Estates are vast, but they’re actually controlled by a government-appointed committee, with the monarch receiving around 15% of the income, an arrangement which dates back centuries and is part of the complex web of restrictions around the monarch and their family. They’re bound up pretty tight really. I kind of pity them.

And yes, I watched at least some of the processions, funeral, etc, as least as far as possible without depriving myself of too much sleep from the far side of the world. Because, ya know, it’s history, I’m a history geek, and besides nobody does pomp and ceremony quite like the British. As well as being colourful, it was almost funny, all the elaborate parades, drumbeats, fancy uniforms and the like.

Okay, that’s the ‘nicey-nice’ hand. Now for the other stuff.

I don’t share the Queen’s love of tradition or her deep faith, and despite my love of history (or perhaps because of it) and my fascination with the pomp and ceremony, I’m definitely not in favour of monarchies. I consider them rigidly outdated, an encrusted frozen relic of the past which we could easily do without. While I have nothing personal against any of the Royals, I’d be perfectly fine with them becoming just ‘Mr and Ms Windsor who live down the street’. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be the political or public will to make this happen, at least in Britain itself. The conversation in Britain’s former colonies about becoming republics, however, is well under way.

I think it’s highly likely, indeed inevitable, that by the end of this century if not before, many of these countries, including New Zealand, will become republics. The Queen‘s popularity delayed this process but won’t ultimately prevent it. It will be interesting to see how the new King affects the conversation, given that he excites nowhere near that level of admiration. Even the most ardent royalist must find it hard to enthuse about an irritable old man who once said he wanted to be a tampon. The only thing I find commendable about him is his championing of environmental causes long before it was fashionable. The PR campaign to rehabilitate his reputation has already started of course, but I don’t know how much effect it will ultimately have.

Speaking of PR, I don’t like either how royalty, like movie stars, have pretty much replaced religion as ‘the opiate of the masses’. They’ve become magazine fodder for the credulous, candy-floss for the mind, as a necessary part of keeping their popularity and with it their lifestyle. They may hate the loss of privacy, but I don’t doubt they know why it’s necessary. As long as people are oohing and aahing over pretty pictures of royal children and warring princes, swallowing it all down like candy, few of them are going to wonder if royalty is even needed in the first place.

I also want to say that even though (or perhaps because) I’m a person of European descent in a former British colony, I detest colonisation and the damage it’s done, a process that even if it wasn’t exactly ‘by’ royalty, was often supported by them, and done ‘in their name’. I believe much more dialogue about colonisation and its results is necessary, and that anti-monarchists, especially non-white peoples who have suffered at the hands of colonial powers, are entitled both to express their opinion and demand change and I don’t think they should be silenced or arrested for doing so.

Then there’s all the stuff about her ‘doing her duty’. But I’ve noticed people are always vague about what that duty WAS. When I look at what she actually did, I see a lot of opening of new hospital wings or schools, a lot of walkabouts, a lot of meeting the public and shaking hands. She entertained foreign dignitaries, hosted garden parties and formal dinners, handed out many a knighthood and medal, and supported multiple charities. She read lots of government papers and kept a finger on the ‘issues’ of the world, even if she couldn’t actually *do* anything about it. She made appropriate speeches at the appropriate time. And so on. In short, she was rather good at being a figurehead.

But we can always do without a figurehead.

Where to from here, then? In New Zealand, the conversation about us someday becoming a republic is ongoing. It’s not urgent, but it’s also true that we don’t feel the attachment to Britain we once did. When I was a child, you could still hear people talking about ‘The Old Country’, and ‘Home’, but that generation is long gone. We consider ourselves New Zealanders now, wherever our ancestors came from (and of course many are not of British origin), and are evolving a culture of our own, one which is increasingly influenced by Māori culture. I find this exciting.

So it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years. But we can start with increasing those discussions about colonisation and how to heal the wounds from it. That is something we can and urgently need to do. There’s a lot of hurt to be dealt with, a lot of reparation to be made. Getting started on this is way more important than royalty itself.