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Queen Elizabeth II and the final end of Britain’s imperial age

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Queen Elizabeth II died Thursday afternoon on the age of 96. Her seven-decade reign, longer than that of some other monarch of her realm stretching again to earlier than the times of the Norman conquest, might be seen as its personal Elizabethan age. By political upheaval and financial crises, household dramas and a revolving door of 15 prime ministers, the queen was serene and enduring. She hardly ever gave interviews or supplied a public opinion, and put ahead a regal presence outlined by her reticence. Her stoic continuity was, in itself, a type of grace.

In a statement, President Biden described Elizabeth as “a stateswoman of unmatched dignity and fidelity” who “outlined an period,” including that “her legacy will loom giant within the pages of British historical past, and within the story of our world.”

The times to come back will see a surfeit of commentary and evaluation of the depth of that legacy. However one narrative is inescapable: Elizabeth ascended the throne 70 years in the past as the pinnacle of a globe-spanning empire. However she died at a second of contraction and uncertainty, with most of Britain’s colonies gone, its place in Europe a source of tension, and its global status diminished.

“If the reigns of the opposite nice feminine monarchs of English and British historical past, Elizabeth I and Victoria, coincided with durations of nationwide enlargement, it fell to the second Elizabeth to be a mainstay of a nation coming to phrases with a modified place on this planet,” observed an editorial in the Financial Times.

Little of this was instantly as a result of queen herself: She was all through a ceremonial determine, extra typically cresting the tides of historical past than transferring them. However in her position, she appeared to embody a narrative of her nation. Elizabeth understood this herself. She famously mentioned in 1947, on her twenty first birthday throughout a go to to South Africa, “that my entire life, whether or not or not it’s lengthy or quick, shall be dedicated to your service, and the service of our nice imperial household to which all of us belong.”

Irrespective of her many years of devoted service, the imperial household would quickly shrink. A couple of months after that speech, Britain’s most essential imperial possessions — India and the newly created Pakistan — lastly shook off the colonial yoke and declared their independence. Nothing conveyed the grandeur of Britain’s world-striding empire higher than Queen Victoria’s earlier assumption of the title of “Empress of India.” For greater than a century, the pillaged wealth of the Asian subcontinent had turbocharged the British economy and undergirded Britain’s rise to world preeminence. Gems looted from India made their approach into the crowns of British royals, together with that of Elizabeth’s mom, a visceral reminder of a hyperlink that India lastly sundered in 1950 when it formally turned a republic.

Nonetheless, in 1952, when Elizabeth realized of her father’s loss of life in a Kenyan looking lodge, Britain possessed greater than 70 abroad territories. Now it counts only 14 — principally scattered, wind-swept islands, the geographically largest of which is the Falkland Islands, a South Atlantic archipelago inhabited by fewer than 3,000 folks. Beneath her watch, not solely did the empire contract, however the UK devolved energy to constituent house nations Wales, Scotland and Northern Eire. The febrile politics of Brexit have raised the prospect — albeit, nonetheless distant — of the latter two additionally breaking away.

Because the inheritor obvious after which queen, Elizabeth was maybe not aware about all of the sordid particulars of the operations carried out to protect her empire after the top of World Conflict II and thru the Sixties. These included brutal counterinsurgencies in what’s now Malaysia, Yemen, Cyprus and Kenya — the place tens of hundreds of individuals have been detained and tortured by colonial authorities as they tried to crack down on the anti-colonial Mau Mau motion. These misdeeds have solely belatedly led to a reckoning in Britain, with the federal government paying compensation to some victims of its colonial insurance policies, whereas activists push for the elimination of statues and the revision of college curriculums glorifying Britain’s empire.

Elizabeth forged herself because the completely satisfied steward of the Commonwealth, now a bloc of 56 independent countries that each one, sooner or later, have been dominated by the British crown. However its historical past was hardly benign. “The Commonwealth had its origins in a racist and paternalistic conception of British rule as a type of tutelage, educating colonies into the mature duties of self-government,” noted Harvard University historian Maya Jasanoff. “Reconfigured in 1949 to accommodate newly unbiased Asian republics, the Commonwealth was the empire’s sequel and a car for preserving Britain’s worldwide affect.”

The Commonwealth’s current is extra mundane. For all the worldwide relevance it gave the queen and her scions, who launched into periodic, media-soaked excursions of their former holdings, it’s a grouping of restricted stature and affect. In lots of cases, the Commonwealth’s member states don’t share political values or financial pursuits. Nor do the overwhelming majority of them look to Britain for any specific steering or management.

Probably the most notable phenomenon of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign was a movement among Caribbean nations to take away her because the titular head of their states and press demands for reparations for the abuses and exploitation of the colonial period. Barbados led the way in which, formally turning into a republic final November. To its credit score, the British monarchy acknowledged the event with poise and humility.

“From the darkest days of our previous and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which perpetually stains our historical past, the folks of this island cast their path with extraordinary fortitude,” mentioned then-Prince Charles at a ceremony the place he celebrated Barbadian independence. “Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.”

It’s too early to inform what kind of position the brand new king might need to play. Jasanoff known as for the British monarchy to eliminate the “myths of imperial benevolence” that also suffuse its ceremonies and actions. “Whereas we rejoice the mightiness of Elizabeth II’s allegiance to a lifetime of service,” wrote journalist Tina Brown in her 2022 e-book, “The Palace Papers,” “we also needs to acknowledge that an antiquated model of monarchy should now cross into historical past.”





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