Rosemary Haskell: Queen’s gift to her people was modeling the nation’s best self
Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 15, 2022
By Rosemary Haskell
The death of Queen Elizabeth II encourages me to consider the interesting topic of Great Britain, a country I left more than 40 years ago.
I wonder again about why this woman was so significant, and have come to believe it’s because she enabled her subjects to find a way to love their rather troubled country.
The Queen’s public persona of quiet virtue, religious devotion, sense of duty, self-control and stoic resistance to the allure of fickle public opinion made her much admired, and now, much mourned.
In its early years, her long reign over the United Kingdom as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and “other realms beyond the seas,” unfolded during the rather brisk dissolution of the old British empire. This break-up gathered speed in the 1960s, with African countries including Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya leading the way.
The British Commonwealth of nations, now just the Commonwealth, emerged. Elizabeth was famously devoted to this organization, forming strong personal relationships with many leaders of former colonies. Watchers of “The Crown” will know that Elizabeth promoted economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa and that in 1961 she danced with Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah in what was then a rather shocking display of black and white closeness.
But all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men cannot purify the history of the British empire and its aftermath. The British empire was a racist, oppressive and sometimes cruel and violent institution. These unpleasant truths are vividly laid out, most recently in Caroline Elkins’ 2022 book “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.”
Indeed, the United Kingdom is now having its own “Black Lives Matter” experiences, with calls for apologies and reparations, particularly to the Caribbean islands where slaves toiled under the British monarchy until 1834 followed by indentured labor and imperial neglect that produced dreadful conditions for generations. The “white settler” colonies of Kenya and South Africa, also, were notably racist constructions, with brutal British suppression of the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s.
So in order to love their country, the British have to do some hard and mature thinking about their past. Just as Americans are grappling with their own histories of racism and oppression and the long shadows of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, so the British must “come to terms with” or “reckon with” their national historical wrongdoing.
Some may question what that means. I think it means finding in the Queen, since she assumed the throne in 1952, the best parts of an ideal national self. In the UK and across the old empire and the new Commonwealth, Elizabeth performed for her peoples a role of decency and moral effort. It was an effort to be better than the reality of past and present, and to approach the far point of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “arc of the moral universe,” which is indeed long, but which I, too, believe “bends toward justice” in the UK and the U.S.
The British and the Americans want to love their countries. President Biden’s Independence Hall address on Sept. 1 encouraged our patriotism by reminding us of what we can be. “We, the people, have burning inside each of us the flame of liberty that was lit here at Independence Hall — a flame that lit our way through abolition, the Civil War, Suffrage, the Great Depression.”
Thus he performed a valuable function: not as chief executive, but rather as a head of state, as Elizabeth was to her country.
King Charles III, following his mother’s example, must continue to show his own nation its “best self,” to be characterized by a strengthening humanitarian decency that crosses lines of class and race, both within and beyond the United Kingdom.
How disappointing it is that he will not have the help of Prince Harry’s wife, Meghan Markle, whose Black American roots looked set to help the Royal Family reflect the multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan society that Britain has become since 1952. Her presence, inspecting funeral flowers and greeting the Windsor crowds, was welcome. Is it too late to bring the Duke and Duchess back into the Royal fold?
Charles may look for further inspiration to the cabinet of new Conservative prime minister Liz Truss, where the great offices of state — Foreign Office, Treasury and Home Office —are occupied by no white men at all.
The new king could also encourage the clear thought contained in his June 2022 speech to Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kigali, Rwanda, about imperial slavery and “the most painful period of our history.”
If he can do so, then the sins and evils of the national past can be not erased but at least more fully understood, more truly acknowledged, and maybe, at least partially redeemed.
Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University in Elon.