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Queen Elizabeth and the End of History

Long-read

Queen Elizabeth and the End of History

The woke elites’ war on the past is a menace to freedom and democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Long-reads Politics UK

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I had the strangest thought on Thursday evening when it was announced that Queen Elizabeth II had died. I thought that I might soon miss being a subject of that queen. I never liked being a subject. It’s citizenship or nothing for me. My republican soul bristles at speeches by long-gone monarchs in which they congratulated or condemned their subjects depending on how well-behaved they’d been. In 1896 Queen Victoria thanked ‘my subjects throughout the Empire at home and abroad’ for the sympathy they had shown her following the death in war of her son-in-law Prince Henry of Battenberg. That s-word, implying obedience to the monarch, even ownership by the monarch of your personhood, your self, lingered into the modern era. Until 1983 all citizens of the Commonwealth were officially ‘subjects’. We are too grown-up – or coy, perhaps – to say ‘subject’ in the 21st century, but it’s what we were, even if not officially. We were subjects of the queen.

And yet as I saw two women, friends, weeping on the platform at St Albans station on Thursday – how I knew the queen had died – I felt a pang of loss at no longer being a subject of Elizabeth II. Not because I have some odd urge to go back in time and fall at the feet of the late queen. No, it’s because I fear what will come next. I fear what my role, the roles of all of us, will be in the post-Elizabethan age. Being a subject isn’t ideal, sure, but is it better to be a patient, which seems to be how the Duke of Cambridge, now heir to the throne, views his future subjects? William has feverishly embraced the mental-health agenda, that elitist vision of the populace as fragile and broken and in desperate need of therapeutic guidance from on high. The ‘British stiff upper lip thing’ played its part in the past, he said in 2019, but now we must ‘talk about our emotions because we’re not robots’. His Heads Together charity wants the masses to open up about the fact that they’re ‘struggling with their mental health’. I would far sooner bow to Elizabeth II than expose my entire inner life to a future William V.

Or if not a patient, how about being treated as a polluter? Our new king, Charles III, seems keen to engage with his subjects as expressers of pollutants who must be encouraged to modify their behaviour. Infamous for his neo-pagan beliefs, for his conviction that sacred nature is threatened by the industrious exploits of mankind, Charles III has most commonly connected with the public through the issue of climate change. He has slammed our ‘human economies’ that ‘operate in isolation from the wider economy of Nature’. Too many people – now his subjects – have been ‘incredibly wasteful’, he says. They ‘take resources, make products, use them and often dispose of waste to the land’. Charles looks set to be a king who views us as something lower than subjects – almost as contaminants, whose daily behaviour is bringing about a ‘climate catastrophe’. Again, I would rather doff a cap to Elizabeth than subject my behaviour – subject being the operative word – to the scrutiny of a king convinced that I am reckless simply for existing.

So we might soon find ourselves feeling wistful for that era in which we were subjects of Elizabeth. For it seems clear that the ceremony of being the subject of a queen is to be replaced by the reality of being the charges of kings and princes who require not only our decorative respect but also our servility to the technocratic agenda. The post-Elizabeth royals have been subsumed into the tyranny of technocracy. Their rule will not be God-given but expert-led. There will be none of the mystery of monarchy, little, even, of the idea that their right to reign derives from the past, from who their ancestors were. No, these will be ‘expert’ royals. Their authority will come from ‘science’, not God or history. The expertise of emotional intelligence guides William’s relationship with his public; the expertise of climate change will guide Charles III’s kingly missionising. The end result will be a monarchy far more demanding of its subjects than the queen ever was. She expected us merely to bow down – they will want us to lie down, whether on the therapist’s couch of William’s mental-health moralising or in mourning for the Nature that Charles III thinks we have destroyed.

But there is something else, something that worries me even more about the end of the Elizabethan age. The truth is that being a subject of the queen wasn’t only ceremonial. It wasn’t just an ornamental hangover from a long-gone era of deference and enigma. There was substance in it, too. The queen embodied historical consciousness. She was history made flesh. She was one of the few individuals in public life – perhaps the only one – conscious of herself as a figure of history. Conscious of herself as someone made by the past, symbolic in the present, and preparing heirs for the future. She was arguably this country’s final thread to its past. That is what I will miss about being a subject of the queen – that sense that I do not only exist in a Groundhog Day of presentism in which the now is all that matters, but that I also belong to a nation shaped by historical events, achievements and conflicts. Post-Elizabeth, I fear we will lose our connection with the past, and I fear people have not yet clocked just how socially destructive such a development would be.

Prince Charles addresses COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, 2 November 2021
Prince Charles addresses COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, 2 November 2021

The death of the queen has had a huge impact. Foremost on her family – who could fail to be moved by Charles’ tribute to his ‘darling mama’? It will shake the establishment, too, which has lost the personification of the constitution that it serves and upholds. But this is only the beginning. There will be a far greater unravelling After Elizabeth. Most importantly, her demise will embolden those elements in the elite who have devoted themselves to problematising Britain’s past and to wrenching the people of Britain from the history of Britain. Those who view the past as little more than a source of shame, something to be apologised for and liberated from. The queen was an important check on this Year Zero crusade. Her very presence in public life, her existence as a thread between then and now, helped to put a brake on the excesses of our presentist elites who are convinced that their morality is so perfect, so beyond reproach, that everything that preceded it must have been bad and therefore must be dismantled or destroyed. Absent the queen, absent her historical embodiment, this violent turn against the past is likely to intensify.

Year Zero frenzy is one of the most notable madnesses of the new elites. We see it in the US, in the criminalisation of the Founding Fathers as racist. In the demonisation even of Jefferson as nothing more than a slaveholder. In the fervent efforts to change the date of America’s founding from 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, to 1619, when the first slaves arrived. That is, America is a slave nation, not a revolutionary or democratic one. We see it in Australia, with its politics of apology, its incessant self-flagellation over the arrival of Captain Cook and the founding of a new world. We see it in Europe, with the toppling of problematic statues, like Leopold II in Antwerp, and the transformation of national museums into shame-faced houses of stolen monuments (there has been an ‘awakening on colonial loot’, as one account put it). And we see it in the UK, with statues of old slavers being torn down, ‘loot’ being ‘recontextualised’ in the British Museum, and buildings named after problematic historical figures being renamed something inoffensive, something more in accordance with our presentist morality.

The queen herself got caught up in this Year Zero crusade in recent years. Remember when her portrait was taken down by students at Magdalen College, Oxford on the basis that ‘for some students, depictions of the monarch… represent recent colonial history’? Or behold the way some commentators now denounce Elizabeth II as the ‘Coloniser Queen’. Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu tweet-raged about Elizabeth II’s ‘atrocities as Coloniser Queen’ and her failure to do anything about ‘systemic racism today’. Not only is this spectacularly historically ignorant – one of the most notable developments in the queen’s reign was the dismantling of Britain’s colonies – it is also typical of the politics of victimhood that masquerades as ‘decolonisation’. These recent turns against images and symbols of Elizabeth II are best understood, not as serious-minded critiques of the institution of monarchy, but as yet more expressions of the Year Zero hysteria that has gripped the new elites. Of that hysteria that views history as a tyrannical, determining force, breathing its noxious fumes all over us hapless people in the present.

When student radicals say ‘some students’ at Oxford – we can presume they mean students from minority backgrounds – experience portraits of the queen as representations of colonialism, they give voice to the regressive idea that history is a demonic thing that actively harms the vulnerable in the here and now. This is philistine and paternalistic. Philistine because it treats history as despotic, less a thing we make – even if not in circumstances of our choosing – than a baleful phenomenon that decrees whether one is ‘privileged’ or ‘oppressed’. And paternalistic because it treats people from minority backgrounds as morally weak, as so susceptible to psychic injury that they must be protected even from images of Elizabeth II. Heaven knows how those fragile souls would have coped if that diminutive elderly lady had ever shown up on their campus.

The crusade against the past is central to the moralising agenda of the woke elites. Why? First, as an expression of their cultural supremacy. Such is their intolerance that they cannot even abide the existence of past ideas and beliefs that run counter to their own. It is not enough to cancel the thoughtcriminals of the present – they want to erase the thoughtcriminals of history. This speaks to their extraordinary cultural arrogance. So convinced are they of their moral perfection, of their political purity, that they have set themselves no less a task than to rearrange the historical narrative so that it better accords with their worldview. Can you think of a worse act of cultural overreach? Of anything as culturally draconian as seeing monuments to Cromwell or Rhodes or Elizabeth II and thinking to yourself: ‘That person’s morality was not in line with mine, and therefore he or she must go’? I fear we do not yet appreciate the scope of the transatlantic woke elites’ authoritarian ambitions.

Secondly, the crusade against the past is about controlling the present. Orwell knew. He who ‘controls the past controls the future’, he said. In depicting the past as essentially a criminal enterprise, and the future as an unknowable wasteland of a violently changed climate and automated market, the elites invite us, force us in fact, to live in a presentist purgatory. To live in their moral universe alone. In penning us into a constant present, in dislocating us from our own past and encouraging us to dread the future, they render us more isolated, and thus more pliable. Their morality comes to be the only one that counts. Not Cromwell’s Commonwealth ideas; not Magna Carta, which was apparently the selfish accomplishment of greedy lords; not the ideals of the revolutionary United States of America, which is a foul, racist enterprise; not the pacifistic anti-colonialism of Gandhi, who has lately been problematised as ‘racist’; and not even the service and forbearance of Queen Elizabeth II, who they defame as a ‘Coloniser Queen’ whose image is likely to make vulnerable youths faint and weep. No, all that matters is what they believe and say. This is the tyrannical achievement of the elites’ crusade against the past: their unjointing of us from the ideas and visions of history allows them to subject us – once again, subject being the operative word – to the supreme vision of a new establishment that genuinely believes it is historically unique in its goodness.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry promote the Heads Together campaign at Kensington Palace, 21 April 2016.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry promote the Heads Together campaign at Kensington Palace, 21 April 2016.

The post-Elizabeth royals express today’s disdain for the past and anxiety about the future. William and Charles represent a kind of pincer movement against historical consciousness. So William self-consciously defines himself in opposition to historical virtues, and invites his people to do likewise. His claim that the stiff upper lip can be ‘damaging to psychological wellbeing’ was a frank repudiation of the values of his own grandmother – then still alive – and of an older generation that put more store by stoicism and forbearance than by publicly confessing one’s weaknesses. As one report recognised, William’s insistence that ‘locking up your emotions is psychologically damaging’ represented a ‘clear break with the royal family and the British aristocracy’s image dating back decades’. William and other younger members of the royal family are ostentatiously ‘modernised’, fancying themselves as ‘liberated’ from the apparently regressive values of this country’s past.

If William can jettison something as historically significant as the stiff upper lip, what’s next? Might he replace the Union flag with the Pride flag? Denounce his family’s role in colonialism? He’s getting close to doing that. Earlier this year he expressed his ‘profound sorrow’ for slavery. It ‘forever stains our history’, he said. There it is, that view of history as stained, as a kind of poison, something we must continually try to cleanse ourselves of. He’s the decolonised prince, joining the rest of the modern elite in their crusade against the problematic past and in setting up camp in the morally uncomplicated, supposedly pure and neverending present.

Meanwhile, Charles has played a key role in drumming up alarm over the future. We are heading for ‘total catastrophe’, he says. His proposed solution is permanent eco-action in the present. No discussion, certainly no dissent – ‘we just need to act, and now’, our new king has said. Where Elizabeth II embodied the historical past, the constitutional present and a particular vision of the future, William and Charles embody the prison of presentism that the new elites long to place us in. Shame for the past and terror for the future – this is the tyranny of uncertainity we live under in the 21st century. Our role is to atone for the sins of our stained history and to shrink our ‘human footprint’ to try to appease the bleak and angry future that awaits us. We become historically disembodied, alienated from the gains of the past and discouraged from imagining new futures. There is only now, only this, only you.

We need to talk about what we lose when we lose historical thinking. As Hannah Arendt said, wishing to maintain a connection with the past is not an antiquarian endeavour. On the contrary, redeeming the past gives meaning to life in the present. Without a connection to history, our experience becomes more precarious and our identities more brittle and unclear, she wrote. The past should be known and connected to, not because we want to pursue ‘the renewal of extinct ages’, said Arendt, but because we want to ‘pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the corals in the depths, and to carry them to the surface’. ‘Delving into the depths of the past’ illuminates who we are and what we mean. We know this to be true. Everything we are is a historical accomplishment. The communities we live in, the citizenship we enjoy, the sense of belonging we feel. The anti-historical crusade doesn’t only make it more difficult to know the origins of these things – it empties these things of meaning through problematising the generations and events that created them.

This is the real End of History. Not the victory of liberalism Fukuyama prematurely declared at the end of the Cold War, but the hollowing out of the historical experience and the diminishment of the individual as a creature who must be bound by the morality and fears of the present alone. Queen Elizabeth II did her part in manifesting the historical thread but of course it cannot be left to one person to connect the past and the present. No, it must be a public, democratic endeavour. Back to that s-word – subject. It has two, entirely contradictory meanings. You can be subject to things, such as the demands of monarchy, but you can also be the subject of things, including of history. And the latter entails, not being subservient, but its opposite – thinking and acting historically. That’s the subject we should aspire to be – subjects of history, delving for the pearls of the past in order that we might enhance the present and illuminate the future. Thank you for your service to the historical idea, Elizabeth – we’ll take it from here.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Politics UK

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