The world is watching as the country comes to terms with the end of an era and the start of an uncertain future
Six years ago, France was sad to have lost a friend from our union of European nations. Now, we French republicans feel sorrow once more – this time, coude à coude with our close neighbours as we collectively grieve not the monarchy but the passing of la Reine and the closure of this chapter in our shared contemporary history.
Viewed from France, Britain hasn’t had an easy ride – not just in 2022, but for years. Brexit kickstarted the derailing of what was once seen as a beautifully well-oiled machine and an orderly society. Ever since, almost everything about Britain has seemed off balance.
Having four different prime ministers in six years looks unfortunate, if not careless. To see our British friends represented on the world stage by Boris Johnson was painful. To see the Tories, one of Europe’s oldest political parties, expelling their most moderate and sensible members simply for questioning the hard Brexit line was bewildering.
Queen Elizabeth II reassured us that a measure of constancy, stability and decency remained in the country. Her national address during Covid was soothing – we felt her warmth and remembered, too, the words of Dame Vera Lynn: we will meet again. The platinum jubilee celebrations were another landmark, like a beacon in a rough sea.
But Britain’s longest reigning monarch is now gone. And the new prime minister, Liz Truss, ponders whether France’s president is “friend or foe”. Britain will right itself again, or so we hope, but we fear things will only get worse before they get better.
King Charles may choose the right words to reassure his subjects, but he can’t keep them warm during a tough and uncertain winter. Courage, les amis.
Agnès Poirier is a political commentator, writer and critic for the British, American and European press
Queen Elizabeth II personified strength, grace and determination, a true embodiment of duty to country. Her 70-year reign was witness to dramatic changes in British culture and society. Now, her death places the UK at a new crossroads.
In Jamaica – a realm of the British monarchy – we have watched as Britain has wrestled with political turmoil and instability in recent years. The country’s voice is no longer as prominent as it once was. Now, the end of the second Elizabethan era could offer Britain a unique opportunity to redefine its role in the world – and redirect its arc of influence towards historical justice.
As an MP in a former colony, I know the evils of slavery are alive and ever present. Here, we continue to question the wealth gained by the UK – including the monarchy – from its empire. Indeed, Commonwealth nations are united in our differing beliefs concerning the importance of reparative justice. In Jamaica, we would like to see Britain face up to its legacy of participation in crimes against humanity; to acknowledge its history of exploitation and the consequences, and begin to take concrete steps to rectify it.
As the world watches keenly, King Charles and Prime Minister Liz Truss have a chance to courageously redefine Britain’s image with action, not with what we call a “bag of mouth” – outdated platitudes intended to momentarily placate.
Time moves faster today than it did in 1952, when the Queen acceded to the throne. Britain’s leaders must urgently recognise that the country’s approach to its past has been, and continues to be, misaligned with the current expectations of its former colonies. It is time to correct historical wrongs by resetting its political, economic and social systems for future generations.
If not, we in Jamaica will only watch your country walk alone, backward into the future, with its leaders’ eyes closed.
Lisa Hanna is a Jamaican MP and UN Development Programme goodwill ambassador
I was born in Canada of American parents – a Black father and white mother, both lifetime civil rights activists. They offered me divergent opinions about the monarchy. My mother held the Crown partly responsible for persecuting Indigenous peoples and waging the world’s most prosperous slave trade in the 18th century. Indeed, when I won the Commonwealth writers’ prize in 2008 and received an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II, my mother expressed fury that I accepted. “Stay home and write a chapter of a book,” she said.
But I also had in my head the voice of my late father. The first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, he admired the Queen as a calm, well-mannered public servant. He died before I wrote The Book of Negroes – a novel about a formerly enslaved African woman who goes on to serve the British in the American revolutionary war, and eventually travels to London to meet King George III and Queen Charlotte, and to advocate for an end to the British slave trade. But my father, I’m sure, would have said: “Go meet the Queen. Come home and tell me about her tea and cookies.”
On the big day I bought a new suit and stepped over several corgies to meet Her Majesty in Buckingham Palace. She asked to hear more about the historical Book of Negroes, a British naval ledger documenting the exodus of 3,000 African–Americans to Nova Scotia, Canada, at the tail end of the American revolutionary war. And she joked that she would rather keep chatting with me than proceed with the next item on her agenda. I received neither tea nor cookies but her friendly and self-deprecating manner reminded me that this was a person who had once been a child, was now a mother and a grandmother, and who sacrificed much to a lifetime job for which she had never applied.
I am not a fan of the monarchy, but the crimes of the empire could not have happened without the collusion of Canadians and others in the colonies. The Commonwealth remains, but most of us see the King or Queen as a figurehead. We don’t believe the UK has much bearing on our problems today. We in Canada now bear the responsibility of righting the wrongs in our own backyard. Like my father, I admired the Queen personally. In times of division, strife and hatred, we need voices of calm, reason and caring. We need someone to encourage us to embrace our better angels.
Lawrence Hill is a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph and the author of The Book of Negroes, Beatrice and Croc Harry
I was a severely awkward and self-hating kid when Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married in 1981. I didn’t understand why he was a prince, or why their marriage, the event itself and things leading to it, were on American television nonstop. It was part soap opera, part TV miniseries, part reality show, before there were any reality shows.
Regardless, I inhaled every moment because I was addicted to spectacle. I was a Black boy born poor and fatherless with an unwed mother, our lives smashed between misery and madness. The spectacle was a thirsty escape from what I felt was my going-nowhere life.
But little did I know in those same 1980s I would be changed by things such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the ugly and racist policies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and my college experiences, and a plunge into histories that included those Black like me.
That meant I came to see the royal family for who they truly were – mega-wealthy and mega-privileged beneficiaries and archaic symbols of the very same colonialism, slavery and White supremacy that had wreaked damage on poor people and poor people of colour globally for centuries.
That means I sided with Princess Diana when she moved away from the supreme follies of the royal family (just as I side with Harry now). That means I have cringed, time and again, seeing people who still profess Queen Elizabeth II – and probably now King Charles – as as an ever-ready model for stability, decency and leadership.
In the US, it is heavily divided between those who think the entire royal family a farce, grotesque is a word I have heard used aplenty; and those who think it disrespectful even to criticise the Queen, or the King, now, before, ever. But the deeper conundrum is that very few Americans know much about the UK, other than the revolutionary war bits and pieces we were taught in school, the British music scene from the Beatles to Adele, and pop culture markers such as James Bond. Thus, what the steady bombardment of royal family matters does to us Americans is either cement our general ignorance about the UK or lead to a very callous kind of indifference of who and what is actually there across the Atlantic.
Yes, mourn the passing of a life, always. It is the human and honourable thing to do. But the Queen’s life is not more valuable or more meaningful than my mother’s. Why should my mother die one day with hardly anything while the Queen and her family get to bask in wealth inherited from generations of plundering foreign lands? Yes, mourn her passing, but also say, unapologetically and for the sake of saving us all, the very notion of a royal family needs to end, for ever.
Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, and author
Indians have been absorbed by the news in the UK this month, as one British era draws to a close and ushers in an uncertain future. But this has nothing to do with Queen Elizabeth II’s death.
Our economy has now surpassed Britain’s in size, according to new estimates, and in parts of the country where economic triumphalism dovetails neatly with muscular majoritarianism, there has been particular glee.
“The pleasure of surpassing Britain, which ruled over India for 250 years, supersedes the mere statistics of improved rankings … it’s special,” said Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister.
The reality is more sobering. Britain’s per capita income is more than 20 times that of the average Indian’s, and on every measure of development it is still ludicrous to make comparisons. But the timing is just so sweet that proclamations of a new world order rising and of the sun setting on the British empire have proved irresistible to many aligned with India’s ruling dispensation.
Like all views of foreign lands, this says as much about India’s self-regard as it does about its former ruler. Modi, despite being the first Indian prime minister born after independence, has sought more than any other to invoke the narrative of the shackles of colonialism being thrown off.
And it’s not just a reshaping of narratives but entire landscapes; Modi has rearranged the centre of Delhi and its vista of Raj-era buildings, installing a statue of the controversial Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose where a statue of King George V once stood.
British colonialism will continue to cast a long, dark shadow over India, and the horrors and depredations will not be forgotten easily. These memories are brought to the fore with the Queen’s passing. As Britain today mourns, buffeted by turbulent political ascensions ahead of a biting winter, politicians in India will be quick to reiterate the steady decline of its global influence. As the curtains close on the second Elizabethan era, India is young and hungry for jobs and development; how long Modi can continue to weaponise Britain’s legacy here will be one measure of his continued success.
Rukmini S is a data journalist based in Chennai, India
Events such as Brexit, and rising nationalism, have unleashed tectonic changes and instability within both developing and developed countries. These will further reduce the global influence of the UK itself – and perhaps fracture the British union and what remains of the parts of the Commonwealth.
Queen Elizabeth II has been a steady, constant anchor for the UK during times of crisis, whether global, political, and even during the pandemic: a beacon of calm, seemingly above the pettiness of local squabbles, the likes of which very few countries have had. She had arguably more global credibility than most of the UK’s political leaders.
Some Commonwealth states may well have left but for her continual active engagement with them. With Britain simultaneously losing her and getting a new monarch and a new prime minister, the country may not have the leadership needed to successfully navigate these turbulent times.
These global shifts have fractured long-standing international alliances and have led to the formation of developing-country global institutions to rival the current industrial-country dominated ones. For example, many believe that allying with new developing groups, such as the Bric countries, is more beneficial than staying in the Commonwealth.
Even in industrialised Commonwealth members such as Australia and New Zealand, the voices of republicanism will now increase. Closer to home, Scotland has threatened for years to break away from the UK. And the public may demand the monarchy to at least be downscaled.
Political leaders and the intellectual, business and media elite in many industrial countries – including the UK – don’t appear to fully grasp these dramatic and unfolding global power shifts. And because they are not attuned to them, the post-Elizabeth II era may be a confusing, turbulent one, with reduced global influence.
Ironically, the old Commonwealth ties, if modernised, made more relevant and inclusive, could possibly be the saviour of the UK. However, for this to be the case, King Charles will have to accept moral responsibility for the colonial past, and the Commonwealth will have to shift from the dominance of the UK to equality, and the organisation will have to be turned into a genuine trade bloc.
It is an open question whether the new prime minister, the new King and the governing elite understand that there is a new world afoot, and are up to the challenge of navigating the turbulence that it brings.
William Gumede is associate professor at the School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
This article was amended on 15 September 2022. The Queen acceded to the throne in 1952, not 1953 as an earlier version said.
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How is Queen Elizabeth’s death – and Britain – now seen from abroad? Our panel reports – The Guardian
The world is watching as the country comes to terms with the end of an era and the start of an uncertain future