Courtiers say, he never wanted to think about his accession to the throne, which meant the death of his beloved mother. The inevitable however, came to pass, and on 8th September, the country’s Accession Council, officially announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II, at a grand old age of 96, and proclaimed as her successor, the former Prince of Wales, King Charles III. With the Queen’s funeral today, a new reign begins, and with it, a complex, and in some cases, even vexed legacy.
At such an advanced age, the Queen’s death was not unexpected, but so completely had she become the embodiment of her nation, that the expected, when it came, would always come as a shock that will endure for some time.
As one of her many former prime ministers (15 throughout her reign) Theresa May, put it, during a tribute held in the country’s legislative chamber, the House of Commons, the day “was a day we all knew would come some time, but in our heart of hearts, hoped never would.”
Across the world too, the young woman who ascended the throne, in 1925, at the tender age of twenty-five, “a mere child” said a worried then Prime minister Winston Churchill, captured imaginations, and exercised great influence.
Churchill had reason to be anxious. The Western world was only just emerging from World War II, which claimed a staggering 70-85 million lives, and left all of Europe, including Britain, in ruins. A so called, cold war, between capitalist North America, with Western Europe on one side, and Eastern Europe on the other, was in full force.
In countries colonised by Britain, in Africa, liberation movements were leading calls to throw off the colonial yoke. Similarly in Asia, where India, the British empire’s jewel in the crown, had won its independence, earlier, in 1947, with other smaller nations, following India’s footsteps.
Throughout this period of dizzying change, that would uproot comforting certainties, the young queen, guided by politicians, courtiers, her own good sense, and with the advantage of the mystic of a monarchy, that has lasted over 1,000 years, would go on to become a steadying figure of stability for her nation. While all else around them changed, she remained constant, a reassuring human reference point.
Born in 1926, the year that Scottish electrical engineer, and inventor, John Logie Baird, gave his first public demonstration of a television, she reigned over the digital age, even becoming the “Zoom Queen,” when during the Coronavirus pandemic, she took many of her meetings on zoom.
For her people, young, old, and anywhere in between, she was a permanent presence, her Britannic majesty, symbolising the best of their Britain, the best about them, how they most wanted to see themselves. She was emblematic of the virtues, duty, responsibility, civility, best of “British virtues”, they wanted to project about themselves. Except that she could only ever seem to be the permanent presence she could never be, any more than anyone can.
By today, the day of her funeral, millions will have spent long hours, twenty-two, in some cases, in queues, stretching to five miles, patiently waiting to file into Westminster Hall, where the queen’s coffin lies in state, to pay their last respects. Each of the millions, will have their own, personal reasons for being there. All however, will share a sense of dislocation.
Few living Britons have known any other monarch. They will be mourning someone who had become an omnipresence in their national life. Many, if not most, will find it difficult to imagine their nation without her.
Her death is a passing of an era, leaving them without a figure that had become their lodestone. Distanced by the royal mystic from her people, she nevertheless managed to leave with them, an ineffable feeling of intimacy with her. So deeply imbedded within their consciousness was she, that surveys have found that she was the most recurring theme in British people’s dreams.
She more than fulfilled their expectations. She discharged the duties and responsibilities of a constitutional monarch, with consummate skill. She advised, but could never direct, or command. She exercised great influence, but never power.
Throughout her reign as head of state, fifteen prime ministers, would seek her counsel, and whether it is because they were overawed, or simply impressed and appreciative, all, expressed their gratitude for her wisdom, and would look forward to the weekly meetings with her.
Her neutrality in all matters political, or even social, was essential. The smallest deviation from advisory, to anything approaching a directive, and there would have been a constitutional outcry, if not crisis. Not once in 70 years, was there even a hint of a misstep. What did she really think of this or that prime minister, this or that policy, what was her opinion, no one would ever know.
On the suggestion of her mother, she kept a diary all her life. If it is ever made public, perhaps we shall have some idea of what inner thoughts and feelings, about the events through which she lived were.
She was of course Britain’s greatest ambassador. Nothing could smooth ruffled feathers in bilateral relations, more than a visit by the Queen, or an invitation for this head of state or other to Buckingham, or anyone of her other residences. She wielded the most irresistible of so called soft powers.
For the British state, she could sweep away obstacles with the power of the strongest torrent, with the added advantage of being more guided, even uphill, and flowing with charm, charisma, dignity, elegance, and the very definition of gravitas.
Around 500 heads of state, were in London for the Queen’s funeral. Among them, President Kagame, who like many, will have cut short their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), to say a final farewell, to certainly the most globally recognised of their peers. It will also fall on the Rwanda head of state, who as Chair-in-Office for the Commonwealth, to in effect, lead his counterparts, from other member states of the Commonwealth, as they pay their last respects.
Before setting off to the UNGA, the President’s words of condolence, to the new King Charles III, the entire British royal family, and the people of Britain, were combined with a directive for all flags in Rwanda, to be lowered to half mast, in hour of a queen, who was also the head of the Commonwealth.
Rwanda is one of the four, out of 56 states in the Commonwealth, not to have been colonised by the British.
For the majority that were, whether from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, in paying respects to the Queen, the heads of state will be at odds with many among their own people, for whom she represents the British Empire’s colonialism, with its ravages of the colonised lands, and peoples, leaving wounds that are still fresh today.
The young heir apparent, was touring the Commonwealth, when her father George VI, died, and she immediately became queen. She and her husband, Prince Phillip, were staying at the Treetops Hotel, in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park. The carefully constructed fairy tale, is that “she went up the tree a princess, and came down a queen.”
What is not so often acknowledged, is that only a few months later, Mau Mau, freedom fighters, would use the park as their hideout, and one year after her coronation, would symbolically burn down the hotel.
It was in Kenya, as much anywhere else, that the cruelty of British colonisation was most evident. Responding to demands for independence, the British herded over 1.5 million Kenyans into concentration camps. Tortures meted out to the inmates were so depraved, that it is difficult to believe they actually ever happened.
But happen they did. Rape, including both men and women being raped with bayonets, people roasted alive, were some of the methods devised to punish those who dared to oppose Britain. And when they were bored with these methods, new, nightmarish ones were invented.
In South Africa, a senior member of the Commonwealth, from where the new queen made the now famous speech, promising to serve all the peoples under the crown, including at the time, South Africa itself, the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, was out of the blocks early, with what many thought an inappropriate statement, but which resonates beyond South Africa.
“We do not mourn the death of [Queen] Elizabeth, because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history. Britain under the leadership of the royal family, took over control of this territory…in 1795…From that moment onwards, native people of this land have never known peace, nor have they ever enjoyed the fruits of this land, riches which were and are still utilised for the enrichment of the royal family…”
Within the Caribbean, Britain is of course, connected to the Atlantic slave trade, from which many argue, neither the Caribbean, nor Africa has yet to recover, and about which Britain, has yet to show true contrition.
Yet, despite this bitter legacy, the Queen was universally admired not only in Africa, but throughout the Caribbean. An estimated four billion people worldwide, were expected to watch her funeral.
In return for such high regard, the queen was devoted to Commonwealth, which she headed to the end of her life.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in London, in 2018, the Queen expressed a wish that her son, now King Charles III, would become head of the commonwealth, after her, a wish that was never likely to be denied.
Fourteen nations, around the world, still had the Queen, and now the King, as head of state. These include settler nations, like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
While staying above politics, it was nevertheless, in large due to regard for her, that this complex legacy not withstanding, Britain has continued enjoy excellent, even privileged relations, within former British colonies. When politicians caused disharmony, it is to her they turned for restoration of Britain’s standing.
The Queen reportedly disapproved of former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to impose sanctions, against the apartheid regime in South Africa. With the triumph of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, and his release from prison, the Queen visited South Africa, no doubt to undo the damage Thatcher’s stance had caused, and turn frowns to smiles, once again.
Her relationship with Nelson Mandela, is one of the few, about which she ever publicly expressed her feelings, which were that the relationship was, “one of the most outstanding experiences of my life…”
From republicans at home, to anti colonialists abroad, there was a sense that no opponent of the British monarchy, wanted to express their opposition too stridently while reigned, so universally popular was she. Whether or not he will be able to inherit such reverence for his mother, will be one of the many questions facing the new King Charles III.