The Gist: The Gilded Age
With the Queen's death, Britain has a chance to move on from its Imperial past. This is the Gist.
This week the United Kingdom underwent the greatest change in its domestic affairs in living memory.
At the start of the week, it changed its political leader. And at the end of the week, it changed its head of state, and the head of its established state church.
Queen Elizabeth II has, since her death, been compared to many things and people. But the more I thought about the complexity of talking about her life, the more I thought about the Incredible Hulk.
Queen Elizabeth II was a person- a very old and frail lady who died at the end of a long life surrounded by disappointing, to one degree or another, family members. People met that old lady throughout her life and found they liked her.
Queen Elizabeth II was also the head of state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the head of the Church of England, the Commander-In-Chief of the British army, the inheritor of the British Empire’s global colonial project and the head of the Commonwealth, as well as being the head of state of 15 remaining former colonies.
Bruce Banner and the Hulk have the decency to clearly indicate which is acting by turning green and bursting out of their plaid shirts. And when we talk about one, we can use different names to indicate if we mean the big guy, or the other fella.
The Queen of England looked like the same person, and used the same name whether she was chatting to a butcher in Cork or presiding over the democratic institutions of England while wearing a crown topped by a diamond taken from the earth of Africa. This overlap has complicated discussion of her legacy.
For the last few years the UK has been, to put it mildly, Going Through Some Things. A time of enormous change is always seen as dangerous to a power structure committed to maintaining the status quo. So the official view of the next week in the UK we see from the outside should be recognised for what it is- a shell, potentially brittle and cracking.
Liz Truss stepped out onto Downing Street to deliver the official response to the news of the Queen’s death. One part of the artlessly intoned speech she ploddingly read struck me;
“Queen Elizabeth II was the rock on which modern Britain was built. Our country has grown and flourished under her reign. Britain is the great country it is today because of her.”
We don’t know how long ago those words were written. But they simply rang absurd after the last few years of chaos, reputation collapse and untrustworthiness that have characterised the UK’s recent political persona.
But step back and notice the scope of the claim- ‘our country has grown and flourished under her reign.’
It is monarchs and heads of state, those smashing, roaring forces, who reign. Frail human beings, the Bruce Banner-puny human element of the duality, don’t come into the business of reigning.
And, though not at all as the Prime Minister meant when she gratingly read her script with all the conviction of a tea-towelled tot in a school nativity play, Britain did change definitively for the better across the seven decades of the Queen’s reign. That change was the disintegration of the British Empire, and of Britain's idea of itself as an Imperial power.
Empires are strange things. They exist because they are unimaginably profitable (and the British Empire was that before it was anything else). But those profits tend to pool around individuals, instead of dropping into the coffers of the general public. This grotesquely distorts the society at the centre of Empire. Meanwhile, the societies whose wealth is being extracted, out at Empire’s periphery, also suffer social warping or collapse from the violence, oppression and death that status delivers.
Empires poison their centre and dehumanise and kill at their edge.
The Queen of England ascended to the throne five years after the partition of India ended the British Raj, at the cost of approximately 1 million Indian lives. Three years after she took the throne, Britain attempted to maintain Imperial control over the Suez Canal when it was nationalised by the Egyptian government. She received daily briefings on that debacle from MI6 (Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t an idle title). By the time the Suez crisis was over, England’s 800 year imperial project was finished along with it . It took the many decades of her reign for the power structure she was the figurehead for to accept that. As Brexit showed, some never did.
If Queen Elizabeth II’s reign had a single theme, then, it was the end of empire. Paradoxically, this remains Britain’s greatest social and political opportunity. It would never be possible for an Imperial Britain to “grow and flourish” . No Imperial power can ever grow. Change represents a threat.
An Imperial power structure will tell a story to the populous that they are living in a Golden Age, while reproducing the same model of exploitation at home that proved so effective abroad. Queen Victoria’s reign may have featured a famine killing a million Irish people, children sent down mines and up chimneys to die and been the literal source of the phrase 'Dickensian poverty' but she was calculatedly presented as the Empress upon whose realm the sun never set.
It was a gilded age, but the golden shine of gilt only covers the thin layer on top of a base metal.
Next week will see a country-wide theatrical performance. It will be the Festival of Brexit the dreamers of Empire never got. It will tell a story of national greatness, policy consistency and of global love for a head of state (as opposed to affection for an old lady). It will be a national anxiety dream acted out on a scale never seen before.
Morrisons will silence their beeps. Cars will flow through Hammersmith. Someone, somewhere, will play the poetry bit from Four Weddings and a Funeral. Buried by the performance, there will also be a funeral for a very old lady.
And then, afterwards, there will be the start of a new story of Britain, with new characters playing the lead. And change will come.
In an empire, everything new starts at the edge before it comes, at last, to the centre. The centre has changed.
I’m interested to see what happens next.