The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, although somewhat expected considering her advanced age, still came as something of a shock this week. After all, we had seen her welcome her new prime minister just a couple of days before, looking frail but stalwart. True to the commitment she made as a young woman, she spent her entire life fulfilling her duty. We have, throughout our lives, considered ourselves to be “royal watchers,” followers of Britain’s royal family. Everyone we’ve ever known throughout the course of our lives has also known of Queen Elizabeth. So she was, for us, and for many, the last universal touchstone.
And yet she was also unknown. To the world, she was as devoid of opinions and emotions in public as her handbags were of everyday items like a wallet or keys or a cellphone. Why was she carrying that handbag during her last public appearance to appoint her 15th prime minister?
Considering our British heritage, and the fact that we grew up in a former British colony, our own relationship to the British monarchy is, well, complicated.
Why are we so enamored of the pomp and ceremony surrounding the British royals? What is it about the royal family’s exploits that stirs our interest and captures our rapt attention? How can mere commoners like ourselves continue to fantasize about a life of immense privilege experienced by an increasingly rare segment of society? For lack of a better term, it’s complicated?
Without question, the queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties, and, for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly remembered. She was a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times has sent ripples of sadness around the world. But we should avoid romanticizing her “era.” During the course of her reign, the British Empire dissolved into some 50 independent states and its global influence was significantly reduced. In her role as head of the Commonwealth, she managed to avoid decades of violent upheaval and obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged. Her tours of the Commonwealth nations and former colonies were often accompanied by cheering crowds and flattering footage, all staged to make it appear as though she had personally achieved some royal step challenge while ignoring the fact that she always traveled by royal yacht or personal jet or Rolls-Royce to embark on her so-called “walkabouts.” Her success in all these activities was measured by how well she preserved the mystique of monarchy.
We will watch this week as throngs of mourners the world over pay tribute to the queen, but we’ll do so with mixed emotions. We’re no fans of King Charles III, and we despise Queen Camilla, so our fascination with the royals may get buried with Elizabeth. Regardless of what happens “across the pond,” we remind ourselves that we are proud patriots of a nation that violently rejected the British monarchy, yet we are also genetically linked to the ancient isle and its royal family. As we said, it’s complicated.