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The Age of Elizabeth Comes to an End
A Circumspect Look at the Life and Legacy of the Queen.
“Because a prince by birth has fewer reasons and less need to harm his subjects, it is natural that he should be more loved; and if no unusual vices make him hated, it is reasonable that he should be naturally well liked by them. And through the great length and continuity of his dominion the memories and causes of innovation die out, because one change always leaves indentations for the construction of another.”
- Niccolo Machiavelli [The Prince, II]
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Introduction: The End of an Era
As everyone with any access to media has heard by now, Queen Elizabeth II- more properly “Queen Elizabeth II, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”- died peacefully in her Scottish castle on Thursday, September 8, 2022. However, she was such a monumental figure that she could just be called the Queen and everyone would know who you meant anywhere in the world, as was the case with the Persian Kings of old. She reigned more than 70 years, making her the longest reigning monarch in British history and the second longest reigning monarch in all of recorded history. In many ways her steady and calming presence was the most stable thing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as we transitioned from the “Industrial Age” to the “Information Age.” For perspective, this small woman who died last week counseled Winston Churchill as Queen and oversaw his funeral. The first US President she met with as Queen was Eisenhower. Upon becoming Crown Princess at age 10, she would go on to spend another 86 years on the job. While there are many valid criticisms of her life and legacy, it is trite but true to say that her sense of duty and personal decorum were incredible.
I am deeply ambivalent about monarchy, the British Empire, and Elizabeth specifically. What I am most interested in is the fact that the Queen had more personal prestige than anyone on Earth in our lifetimes, in part simply by outlasting everyone else. You have to be 75 to have any memories of an England without her, and over 90 to remember a world before she was the Princess. She’s also a unique figure in history for overseeing the somewhat voluntary relinquishing of the world’s greatest empire, and its transition to being the favored vassal of a former colony. History is sure to remember her positively due to her personal conduct, but can the same be said for the British monarchy and empire? It seems unlikely.
Is There a Place for Monarchy in the Modern World?
It is easy to mock monarchies, especially with an American’s view on government and religion. All the more so as the British Monarchy plays a mostly ceremonial role. It is hard for Americans to understand the point of it all. There are a few reasons for this, besides the American Revolution, most of all the overwhelming influence of the Enlightenment and general ignorance about classical political theory. As I said in my introduction to this substack, I’ve long been skeptical of the Enlightenment. As I wrote at the time:
“Something had been nagging at me for many years, which I could not find any answers to, and which I only ever met one man with the same questions who anyhow seemed to be coming to the wrong conclusions: what if the Enlightenment was wrong? What if post-Enlightenment thought is corrupt?
This is so far out of the realm of how Americans think that they don’t even understand the question. Though it is out of fashion, our entire understanding of humanity uses classical liberalism as its main frame of reference.”
From such a perspective, it is difficult or near impossible to genuinely justify a hereditary monarch and perhaps even more so a hereditary head of church. [Most Americans probably fail to even conceptualize what it means that she was the equivalent of the Pope of the Church of England.] Andrew Sullivan published an article titled “America Can’t Understand Monarchy” where he made the same observation:
“You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.”
It’s true that a celebrity type fascination with the monarchy is ridiculous, but it is not ridiculous to have a living symbol of your institutions and people. The Queen put a dignified face on all of their projects, from major things like the UK government being called Her Majesty’s Government and their postal service being called The Royal Mail [which I’ve heard referred to as “Her Majesty’s Post”] to more obscure things such as Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate, as well as charities such as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The monarchy is at the center of what you could call the “British national project.” Hell, due to some bizarre historical flotsam the British Crown owns and is responsible for the nation’s swans. We live in an era where everything is meant to be based on rational but abstract principles, however, humans also have a need for things to be human, and a monarch is the living embodiment of the state.
There is great value in having a separate head of state [“Prince,” in political theory, whether or not it is a monarch] and head of government [Prime Minister.] In fact, outside of the Americas it uncommon for those roles to be filled by the same person. It is even uncommon for the head of state to be a powerful role in its own right, with France and Russia being the only examples of powerful countries with a strong head of state who is not also the head of government. An attachment to a sovereign is an essential part of building identity for the common man which gives him security and understanding. It is easy to see how poorly this role is filled in America, with George HW Bush being the last President who could even be said to have a “Patrician’s bearing.” As I’ve written before, Trump’s lack of decorum was clearly his cardinal sin to our professional class, and there is no arguing that he didn’t provide a dignified example even if he epitomized many uniquely American traits. But as we’ve increasingly learned while our country falls apart, the ceremonies of government are profoundly important in different ways to a huge cross section of the country. We knew this of the flag-waving religious conservatives, but we also learned that the professional class liberals and their followers, though not traditionally seen as patriotic, care an enormous amount about the liturgy of government. It’s easy to see how a senior statesman carrying out the ceremonial duties of government- as is common in parliamentary republics- has benefits over it being done by a President who will inherently be controversial after our dark and corrupted campaign process. There is clearly a human need to at least tolerate the President as a ceremonial leader more of the time than is common for the average person in contemporary America. All the arguing about Trump’s “Master of Ceremonies” sort of role was one of the most asinine and frustrating parts of the response to his presidency, but was also genuinely damaging. Lucy Steigerwald, who is as anti-monarchy as anyone, said this concept was explained to her by a British person in the following fashion:
[Don’t worry about the Hoppeans part of that if you don’t already get the reference.]
This is of course a cynical way to look at it, but it is a relatively benign release valve for what is clearly a natural human impulse among the masses of feeling oneself to be in a tribe and wanting to be proud of that tribe. For all of the problems within British government, there has remained a degree of genuine unity that has not been consistently experienced in America for decades- and the last time it was experienced was when we were briefly united by blind rage following 9/11.
In the above linked article, Andrew Sullivan quoted C. S. Lewis’s take on this which is written in a characteristically reverent and profound tone:
“Where men are forbidden to honour a king, they honour millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”
Sullivan goes on to write,
“The Crown represents something from the ancient past, a logically indefensible but emotionally salient symbol of something called a nation, something that gives its members meaning and happiness. However shitty the economy, or awful the prime minister, or ugly the discourse, the monarch is able to represent the nation all the time. In a living, breathing, mortal person.”
There is great value in this, even if it is hard for Americans to see. Constitutional monarchy has benefits, though it is a vestige of oppression. The fact that it isn’t rational is also why lasting monarchies are hard to create where they did not already exist, with the only major example being Alexander’s generals, who had divided the empire, naming themselves King at roughly the same time [along with Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse.] Besides that, the history of most ruling families’ rise to nobility is shrouded in the mists of antiquity [and the Hellenistic kings were also Macedonian nobles, only Agathocles was a commoner- in a society without formal hereditary nobility.] As Thomas Paine masterfully explained in Common Sense, we do know the brutal fashion in which this particular royal family came to rule England, and he took that to be an argument against the monarchy. However, what we don’t know is how William the Conqueror’s family came to be nobility in the first place- it is lost to history. Due to the mystical aspect of nobility, it is only a man like Napoleon who manages to go from commoner to King, and he did that through sheer military power and it did not last for long. Even when Greece attained independence and wanted to become a Kingdom they shopped for a monarch from Europe- after an agreement that no major power could take over the monarchy of Greece they selected as sovereign the King of Denmark [which is how Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip came to have been the Prince of Denmark and Greece, a seemingly inexplicable combination.] Beyond the aspect of heredity, this simply is a position that requires lifelong training to fill well, and even so, many are never of a disposition to do it well [though I would posit that our system in America essentially guarantees bad heads of state.]
I realize my ambivalence towards monarchy has not shown through in this, and the reason for that is because as an American of the modern era my criticisms of monarchy are self-evident. It’s silly, it’s unfair, it requires a belief in specific divine intervention in human affairs, and it sets one person above the rest for no reason other than birth. It really isn’t something that seems like it should have a place in the modern world, and it requires suspending a lot of one’s beliefs about how the world does or should work to accept it. The truth is though, I live relentlessly in the real world, and care the most about how things actually are, not the idea behind them, and it’s quite clear that it is better to be ruled by the Prince of Liechtenstein than Joe Biden. If constitutional monarchy works for a state and its public, that is good enough for me; however, the British are extremely misgoverned, so the real question is if their monarchs have stopped it from being even worse, which the Queen at least probably has.
A Benign Empire?
Elizabeth’s greatest legacy will, for better or for worse, be having overseen the collapse of one of history’s greatest empires. Though there is some push back now, for the most part, the United Kingdom has done an incredible job of convincing people it is unlike history’s other empires. It is the storied “benign empire” that did so much to improve the world. Here is Tucker expressing this view:
He is certainly correct that they were once impressive, especially compared to their current state where they are poorly managing the decline of their wealth and power. He is also correct that this just is how history works, and this current era of supposedly universal respect for “self-determination” is a fantasy and an anomaly [due to the impossibility of universal self-determination, most countries contain some sort of marginalized minority group, if not several.] Here is Brexit leader Nigel Farage claiming that the United Kingdom is the only empire in history where former colonies voluntarily join a club to remain associated with it:
I do think that it is fair to say that in many ways the British Empire was relatively better than most historic empires. However, it is also ridiculous to call it benign, as the British Empire, like any empire, was brutal and domineering and extracted vast wealth from its colonies. One study claims that the United Kingdom profited a shocking $45 trillion dollars off of India over two centuries, and that is just in trade regulated in a certain way which it was possible to calculate. That doesn’t include all sorts of other looting, nor the human cost of conscripting Indians as soldiers in the empire’s wars. Sure, they invested money into India, but there's is no way they did not make far more profit than they spent. It’s true being an industrial powerhouse helped Britain take over so much of the world, but there’s no way it gave their small island the truly disproportionate amount of wealth they long had all by itself.
The British Empire used widespread violence of all kinds to acquire and maintain this empire. I haven’t read it yet, but there is a recent book called A Legacy of Violence which seeks to expose how the British used and hid their violence in the service of empire. This same author, Caroline Elkins, was crucial in the release, some years ago, of documents regarding the brutality of the British Empire in suppressing Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. This goes directly against the framing that the UK wants us to believe, that they voluntarily decolonized. The reality they brutally suppressed independence movements across the world. Further, it was their destroyed economy following the World Wars which put them in a position of dependency on the USA, who demanded decolonization for the purpose of Cold War propaganda- something which simply replaced direct control with more subtle economic domination.
Still, the British were remarkably competent administrators, and it’s clear to see that in general their former colonies are objectively better than other countries in their neighborhoods in terms of economic development and infrastructure- and often human rights as well. This is not just true of the majority ethnic European countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but of their former colonies in Africa and Asia as well. It’s also easy to downplay the brutality of history as a whole if you have an ideological opposition to European empires and place all the blame on empires as if these formerly colonized countries lived in peace, freedom, and prosperity in the pre-colonial era. The truth is, British left countries in much better condition than the French or Spanish, and those countries have continued to benefit from their connections to the United Kingdom. I’m reminded of the absurd novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe which is meant to show the horrors of British colonialism in west Africa. However, the west Africans whose culture is being destroyed are abandoning twins in the jungle for being evil spirits and practice the human sacrifice of a slave, whereas the British are just bringing some order and converting willing people to Christianity. [Despite Achebe’s attacks on Heart of Darkness, a novel he completely failed to understand, it presents a much better picture of the evils of colonialism than his own text.]
Another example given is that the average lifespan in India was 25 in 1800, under the British East India Company. There’s no real reason to believe this was actually the fault of the British, being as India has always been a place of overcrowding, violence, disease, natural disasters, and dangerous animals. India’s drastic increase in lifespan began under the British, in an era where the British were a main force modernizing the world with things like sanitation, medicine, and increased access to food. Even with all the looting, it seems clear that for its brutality, British rule was still a net positive for India, which had previously been a patchwork of petty despotisms.
It is intellectually popular to imagine that colonialism was some sort of unique evil of western Europe. The fact is that every civilization which does sufficiently well to have excess population and the power to do so expands and ultimately sends out colonies, be they overseas or founding cities in the wildlands inhabited by less developed people nearby. It’s easy to criticize the Queen for having overseen the remains of their great empire, but with that attitude, it should seem that she fixed the problem over time and thus deserves credit for the empire ending. If anything she holds more blame from a pro-empire perspective, in that she continued the process of letting go of much they could have held onto. Even if people want to criticize the royals still holding Crown Jewels taken from all over the world, it is quite clear Hong Kong would have been better off held by the British than ceded back to Beijing.
Another point needs to be made is that every ruling class gets its wealth from looting in some form or other. Do you think the guy who found the KohiNoor diamond was properly compensated? At best he got an extra bowl of gruel and then the diamond was given to whatever royal was in charge. It’s also not like returning it would benefit the Indian people in any way, it would sit behind glass somewhere. The same is true of the Greek and Roman artifacts sitting in the British Museum: that wealth primarily came from looting other cultures, especially fleecing the Black Sea region. While there is no reason for us to ignore the crimes of the British Empire, I also don’t think there is any good in the British or anyone else being ashamed of their past, especially when they fit perfectly in with the rest of history and were relatively more benevolent / less nefarious rulers than most.
The Queen: A Lifetime of Service
As far as Queen Elizabeth herself, her personal conduct was seemingly above reproach, though of course basically the entire British government and media sought to make her look as good as possible. That said, she was still a remarkable women who put more hours on the job than almost anyone in human history. As Tucker pointed out above, most of us could not maintain her standards of public behavior for an afternoon. Basically all of her children’s families fell apart in 1992 and she maintained incredible dignity while still acknowledging the personal tragedy. Here is Andrew Sullivan again:
“Whatever else happened to the other royals, she stayed the same. And whatever else happened in Britain — from the end of Empire to Brexit — she stayed the same. This is an achievement of nearly inhuman proportions, requiring discipline beyond most mortals. Think of a year, 1992: one son, Andrew, divorced; a daughter-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, was seen cavorting nude in the tabloids; her daughter, Anne, separated; another son’s famously failed marriage, Charles’, dominated the headlines, and her house burned down. Here is how Her Majesty “vented”:
“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’.”
Dry, understated, with the only vivid phrase ascribed to a correspondent. Flawless.”
It’s easy to call the Royals parasites, but it is much harder to imagine what she actually went through as the leader of her people for the great majority of her life, maintaining a grace and dignity that none of her own offspring she trained for this function were able to. For example, here is then-Princess Elizabeth’s first formal speech in 1940, addressing the children of Britain who had been evacuated due to the Blitz.
It’s incredible to imagine how scared all of the children including Elizabeth must have been, and how much comfort they must have taken from an actual princess addressing them. She went on to serve as a mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army, and due to her long life was the last remaining head of state to have served in World War 2. For reference, every American President fro the war until Bill Clinton served in World War 2, so this is also truly the close of an era, given how long WW2 veterans dominated global affairs.
Too much happened in Elizabeth’s reign to cover the history in an article of this nature. This is a woman who ascended to the throne before the first commercial television broadcast in the UK, but scenes of people mourning her death were recorded on TikTok. For example look at this picture from Aden shortly after she took the throne:
This is being used by the anti-colonialists as an attack on her, but I think the more incredible thing is how she remained unchanged and had the ultimate “stiff upper lip” throughout any era. Her personal prestige was in large part due to her personal behavior, but also simply due to living long enough that no one could remember a world without her.
The Queen was also famous for her discipline in avoiding the day-to-day political disputes of the United Kingdom. Though it has been said the monarch intervening would represent a constitutional crisis, this was largely a policy of her own choosing. There was a minor scandal over “Queen’s Consent,” a system whereby the Parliament sends various laws to her for approval, though the Royals insist that this is a mere formality as evidenced by all the laws being approved. Still, she met privately with the Prime Minister every week [15 Prime Ministers over the course of her career] and it is hard to imagine she didn’t have a great deal of personal influence in these conversations- after all, if the Queen tells you what she thinks is best for the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister is sure to take that as much more than an opinion.
While many admire the Queen’s non-intervention, given the oppressive nature of Britain’s government, there is a strong argument that a better monarch would have intervened in favor of the people. Overseeing the end of an empire is a complicated legacy, and it will never wholly please everyone. She leaves a monarchy whose political power is atrophied, and doesn’t have a successor who can either restore it nor act with her personal dignity as the symbolic leader of the British people. While her conduct as a ceremonial leader is beyond reproach, she held the monarchy together through personal prestige, and it doesn’t seem to me as if she is leaving it in a state where it can continue for long.
Conclusion: The Link to the Past Severed
Regarding the future, I think the excellent writer Brendan O’Neill at Spiked has the most important take about where we will go from here. In an era of “Year Zero” lunatics who have a deranged hatred of history and think everything must be born anew based on “modern values,” she was representative of all of the stabilizing forces within the United Kingdom. We have the same thing in America, where people act like Obama’s 2008 platform is unimaginably reactionary and all of our history is evil, because they simply hate the past, even yesterday. But we never had a Queen Elizabeth to help us fight them, and now Britain doesn’t either. Though he is an avid republican who does not accept the premise of being a subject, O’Neill still worries greatly about the future without the Queen. He writes,
“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…
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’.”
I’m fully on his side that both of these things are worse than being a “subject” of a Queen who wants a great and dignified country. Especially after what we’ve been through with covid and the rulers being obsessed with the idea that we are filthy and diseased, being seen as an emotionally fragile source of environmental harm is extremely alarming. But it is not just the royals to be watched out for, the nihilists who hate history and tradition will also surely take advantage of this to make more plays. O’Neil further writes,
“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.”
This is the worst of all worlds, as they will not be fulfilling the emotional need which a monarch can fulfill but will instead hypocritically live off of the largess of the past while infernally meddling in the habits and minds of the subjects. It is somewhat inherently infantilizing to have a monarch, but this takes it all to the next level.
The worst part, though, is that severing a public from the past is extremely dangerous, unwise, and subjects them to previously unimaginable tyrannies because they don’t have their history and traditions to guide them. The past built the communities and society that we live in and discovered the things that improve our lives and made us who we are today- and self-hatred is bad for individuals and nations alike. There always has been and will be oppression but the past is how we all got here, and none of us can or should try to exist independently from it. No nation who hates its past can or should survive, and it seems clear the goal of the nihilists Year Zero lunatics is to tear down everything that is beautiful and noble in the world just because there has always been oppression. It’s important to note that oppression isn’t and never has been unique to the European powers, while many of their accomplishments such as inventing the steam engine and ending slavery are entirely unique to Europe. Just by existing Elizabeth tied us to the past, and now that tie is broken. O’Neil writes,
“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.”
If the monarchy survives long after Elizabeth, it will not be in its current form or with its current dignity. It will be dreadful scolding technocrats who have discarded the things that give their role meaning and have replaced tradition with fake “expertise.” They will launch endless crusades for their pet ideas instead of representing the nation’s people, culture, and history. And if the Year Zero lunatics manage to sever Britain from the past, the once great nation will truly be confined to the “dustbin of history.”
Farewell, Elizabeth. In a world of individualized media and nihilism, where being gratuitously weird is praised but traditions, normalcy, and history are condemned, the world may never again see a figure as famed, unifying, beloved, constant, and prestigious as the Queen, and I’m quite sure the British people and the world as a whole will be worse off for it.
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