Elizabeth II and the myth of imperial nostalgia
Britain’s mourning for the queen has nothing to do with a longing for the empire.
The eyes of the world are on Britain. The nation is in mourning for the loss of Queen Elizabeth II. Thousands of well-wishers have lined the streets to pay their respects to Britain’s longest-ever serving monarch. So what explains this behaviour? Why was Elizabeth II so popular? Well, according to the New York Times and other (mainly American) observers, those lachrymose Britons are all in the grip of a dangerous nostalgia for the old empire.
On the day of the queen’s death, the New York Times instructed us to ‘Mourn the queen, not her empire’. This guest essay, by Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff, argues that the queen’s role, in presiding over the post-imperial Commonwealth, has obscured the ‘bloody history’ of the decolonisation process of the 1950s and 1960s. And this has allowed Britons to wallow in ‘outdated fantasies’ of a supposedly benevolent British Empire and of a supposedly peaceful transition to the postcolonial era.
Apparently, such fantasies of imperial greatness are still rampant in contemporary Britain. ‘Some of Elizabeth’s domestic popularity can likely be attributed to a sense of colonial nostalgia that has surged in the UK in recent years’, claims an article in Smithsonian magazine, quoting historian Brooke Newman.
We are forever hearing that ‘imperial nostalgia’ is on the rise in Britain. Indeed, just two days before its essay on the queen and the empire, the New York Times carried an essay by Kojo Koram, accusing new UK prime minister Liz Truss of being ‘in thrall to empire’.
The ‘imperial nostalgia’ trope exploded in the wake of Brexit in 2016. As observers in Britain and abroad struggled to make sense of the eminently sensible mass public rejection of the European Union, a litany of ever more bizarre and fantastical excuses were dreamt up. Most of these explanations for Brexit focused on the alleged defects of the voters, and rarely on the defects of the anti-democratic EU or the elitist campaign to remain a part of it.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, blamed the Leave vote on ‘nostalgia for the past’ and ‘the hope for a return to a powerful global Britain’. A Washington Post headline claimed that ‘Britain clings to imperial nostalgia as Brexit looms’. ‘Imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’, wrote the Guardian’s Gary Younge. In the same paper, historian David Olusoga presented the plans for post-Brexit trade deals with the Commonwealth as Empire 2.0. Entire books have been devoted to finding a link between Brexit and empire, such as Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson’s Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, which tries to draw a direct link between 19th-century imperialism and 21st-century Euroscepticism.
Both of the New York Times’ empire essays this week present support for Brexit and support for empire as the same thing. Jasanoff’s essay on the queen claims that ‘xenophobia and racism have been rising, fuelled by the toxic politics of Brexit’. Meanwhile, the UK’s leaders (like Boris Johnson and Truss) are said to have drawn on ‘half-truths and imperial nostalgia’ in their vision of a free-trading Global Britain. Koram also portrays Truss’s free-market leanings as emblematic of the ‘broken mentality of empire’.
The connections between Brexit and empire are always convoluted and strained, largely because no real connection exists. In fact, hard evidence of this alleged imperial nostalgia among the public simply does not exist. Polling shows there has been a marked decline in identification with the empire over recent years. Most British people are neither proud nor ashamed of Britain’s imperial past – an entirely sensible position to take on something most of us had zero involvement in.
As for Elizabeth II, she is the monarch who oversaw the dissolution of the British Empire. This was by no means a pretty process, and the New York Times is right to acknowledge this. But it is more than a little illogical to argue that the monarch who lost the empire is popular because of the public’s attachment to empire.
You have to wonder whether the New York Times is simply projecting here. After all, it is the paper of record of an actually existing imperial power – the United States of America. One which, for all its fading prospects, still genuinely wields enormous economic and military power on every continent on Earth.
Truth be told, the ‘imperial nostalgia’ trope is just a slur on the British people, who are portrayed as small-minded, backward and racist in everything they do. Whether we are voting for Brexit or paying respects to the queen, our motivations are always assumed to be dark and malign. The New York Times and others may pose as attacking the power and privilege of the monarch, or the arbitrary cruelty of the empire. But the real target of their sneering is the British people, who in the years since Brexit they have learned to look down on with imperious disdain.
Picture by: Getty.