A woman has died. A woman who led an extraordinary life.
Elizabeth Windsor held an exalted position and enjoyed riches of which most people can only dream. She saw more of the world, and met more of its inhabitants, than any other woman in history.
This was no Princess Diana, killed in her prime, leaving two young children. Elizabeth Windsor lived for nearly a century. Her children are themselves elderly. Even her grandchildren are middle-aged. The longest-reigning monarch in British history, she was seen by many as all but immortal. And her behavior encouraged this attitude. Ordinary mortals stop working in old age. But she didn’t. She was still working two days before she died. Her last action as Queen was to appoint the U.K.’s new prime minister.
But she was nevertheless a woman, a human being. And all humans, however exalted, come at last to an end. Death is the great leveller.
Her death should have surprised no one. She had been visibly failing since her husband died in April 2021. But for British people, her death feels like the end of an era. She ascended the throne long before most of us were born. She has been a constant presence throughout our lives. The outpouring of grief in the British media is not about the inevitable death of a very old, and at the end very lonely, woman: Such grief would surely be tempered by the sense that for her, death may well have come as a blessed release. No, it is about the passing of a generation, a way of life and, above all, an Empire.
When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, she became the monarch not only of the United Kingdom, but of the British Empire. But the Empire was already fractured and crumbling. India, the “jewel in the Crown”, had become independent three years before. And only four years later, in 1956, the Suez crisis marked the end of Britain’s colonial power in the Middle East.
The breakup of the Empire was a bloody affair. Britain violently suppressed independence movements in colonial possessions such as Kenya, and used military power to repress the reunification movement in Northern Ireland, officially part of the U.K. itself. It interfered in the affairs of states that had achieved independence, supporting brutal dictatorships and providing the means for genocidal regimes to commit atrocities against their own people. And it left countries scarred and poverty-stricken from the systematic draining of resources to make British people, including the royal family, wealthy.
All of this was done in the name of Queen Elizabeth II. But that does not mean Elizabeth Windsor was personally responsible for these terrible things. The crown is separate from the person who wears it. Those who say, for example, that the Queen “oversaw concentration camps in Kenya” or “ordered the brutal repression of an uprising in Yemen” are assigning to her powers she did not have. Those decisions were made by the government of the time, not the Queen. And contrary to what some have claimed, the British monarch does not supervise or control the government. It’s actually the other way round.
In 1688, the U.K.’s Parliament (equivalent to the U.S.’s Congress) deposed King James II, replacing him with his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. This event is known as the “Glorious Revolution,” and it established the sovereignty of Parliament over the monarch. Parliament is the lawmaker, and the monarch cannot overrule or ignore its decisions.
For the same reason, the monarch can’t overrule or ignore the government. The U.K. government isn’t separate from Parliament. Rather, it is made up entirely of members of the two Houses of Parliament. By tradition, the monarch appoints as prime minister the leader of the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons (the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives) in a general election, and invites them to form a government. This is why the Queen’s last act before her death was to appoint a new prime minister. The largest political party in the House of Commons had just elected a new leader, Elizabeth Truss, replacing Boris Johnson, who had lost the confidence of the party. The Queen was obliged to appoint Truss as prime minister and ask her to form a government.
The British constitution requires the monarch to be politically neutral. So when Parliament passed new legislation, the Queen was obliged to approve it even if she personally disagreed with it (though she was able to ask for changes to legislation that would affect her personally). And the Queen was also obliged not to interfere with government decisions that didn’t need legislation. The new king, Charles III, will have to do the same.
The monarch must also be publicly silent on political matters. King Charles alluded to this in his televised address on Sept. 9. He has in the past been decidedly outspoken, particularly on environmental issues, and he was recently overheard calling the government’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda “appalling.” But he won’t be able to express these opinions any more. He has been gagged, just as his mother was.
Some have criticized the Queen for failing to speak out against the brutality of British policies toward its colonies. But if she had done so, she would have caused a constitutional crisis that could have forced her to abdicate. Abdicating would not have changed the policies; it would simply have dumped the problem on the next in line. When the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936, the monarchy passed to her father, and ultimately to her. Had she abdicated in 1952 rather than remain silent about the British government’s brutal handling of the Mau Mau rebellion, the monarchy would have passed to her four-year-old son. What mother would do that to her child?
There have been suggestions that the royal family could force an end to the monarchy by collectively refusing to accept the crown. But this would be profoundly undemocratic. The British constitution says that only the people, through their elected representatives in Parliament, can decide whether the monarchy should continue. No way should the royal family be able to force Parliament to end the monarchy against the will of the people.
And what would this achieve, anyway? The government will still make brutal decisions, and Parliament pass appalling legislation. Until we have better politicians, replacing the monarch with an elected head of state would achieve nothing. Indeed, since it would end the political neutrality of the head of state, it might make matters far worse.
Life in a gilded cage
This is not in any way to excuse what has been done by successive British governments in the name of Queen Elizabeth II and her predecessors. Queen Elizabeth, like the monarchs before her, was the symbolic representation of Britain. It’s not surprising that those who have suffered from British imperialism hate her and all that she stood for. And no one should feel obliged to mourn for someone they did not know or do not like.
But that jeweled crown was borne by a woman who spent her life in a gilded cage, unable to escape without hurting those she loved. And in death, the crown moves on to its next victim, and all that is left is a human being. By all means hate the crown and what it stands for. Call for it to be abolished and reparations made to those who have suffered because of it. But let those who loved the person who wore it mourn for her in peace.
Frances Coppola writes the Coppola Comment blog and is author of “The Case For People’s Quantitative Easing.” She worked in banking for 17 years and received an MBA at Cass Business School in London, where she specialized in financial-risk management.