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Business News/ Opinion / Why it's alright to blame Queen Elizabeth II for Britain's crimes

We live in a time when people want simple answers to complex questions. Was it a dream or reality in Inception? Did Han Solo shoot first? Is RRR the best Indian movie ever made?  And of course: Is it right to blame Queen Elizabeth II for colonialism and Britain’s crimes?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who some consider to be the greatest European philosopher of the 20th Century once argued: “More wisdom is contained in the best crime fiction than in philosophy." It’s a maxim I’ve found to be true for thrillers as well, particularly those written by Frederick Forsyth.

No one has ever explained the need for a symbol to hold the nation together better than Forsyth in his novel Icon about a post-communist, anti-West dictator called Igor Komarov (who in retrospect appears to be ‘inspired’ by Putin, which makes Forsyth’s foresight almost Nostradamus-like since Putin didn’t come to power till 1999 and the novel was published in 1996).

In the novel, a wily British spymaster Sir Nigel Irvine explained the importance of an icon: “All nations need something, some person or symbol, to which they can cleave, which can give a disparate mass of people a sense of identity and thus of unity. Without a unifying symbol, people drift into internecine feuds. Russia is vast, with many different ethnic groups. Communism was brutal, but it provided unity...You have your Old Glory, we, our Crown."

What Forsyth’s spymaster was explaining is clear as day. Or to use a cultural icon more in tune with today’s readers, Tyrion Lannister said in the Game of Thrones finale: “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it."

People need a story to hold them together, and for the longest time Queen Elizabeth II was that flesh-and-blood story. She oversaw the de-colonisation of Britain, giving an image makeover to an Empire whose legacy makes Hitler look like a veritable humanist.

As a friend had put to me once, the difference between Nazism and the British Empire is that the former couldn’t get an image makeover before being wiped out.

As far as PR manoeuvres go, Britain’s transformation – where we imagine its greatest legacy is to give us Yes Minister and The Beatles – is one of the finest PR tales of all time. And of course, British textbooks have no mention of colonialism and when they do they, like their news channels, pass it off as a "long-standing relationship". 

That’s in part due to English being the lingua franca of the world and the fact that Brits left behind enough colonised people who saw the world through Englishmen’s eyes. Also, Operational Legacy, a hush-hush campaign to destroy all records from former colonies that could “embarrass Her Majesty’s Government". 

Now, Queen Elizabeth II’s death seems to have dug up many of the old unanswered questions about Britain’s bloodstained legacy.

On a broad level, reactions to her death can be divided into three disparate categories.

The first one was deep mourning from a majority of the British public, American white supremacists and colonial apologists like Tucker Carlsonwhose bizarrely racist rant left even the eternally loquacious Shashi Tharoor speechless. 

The second one was a great Memethon from across the Commonwealth and other countries which don’t take too kindly to British rule, and which was clearly won by the Irish lads break dancing to “Another One Bites the Dust" in front of Buckingham Palace.

Other sub-genres of the Memathon included the Diana stans who imagined a meeting in the afterlife, an Argentinian anchor popping a champagne on live TV and some rather crude jokes about the Firm’s dark history which include the adventures of a paedophile.

The third was the harsher reactions from those who aren’t willing to wait the mandatory mourning period before naming and shaming. Not one to beat about the bush, Carnegie Mellon Associate Professor Uju Anya wrote: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating."

The tweet was taken down by Twitter but not before the world and its uncle got triggered, including Jeff Bezos.

The alacrity with which the tweet was taken down was a reminder that Big Tech isn’t just liberal America’s biggest stick (where it’s banning legitimate stories about Hunter Biden), but also there to help other white elitists whose surname isn’t Trump. Would a tweet about Hitler or even Vladimir Putin evoke a reaction like this?

Anya doubled down after her original tweet was deleted and wrote: “If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star."

Now, civilised people would say that the tweet was ill-timed and lacked grace and it's certainly bad form to hold a descendant responsible for the crimes of one’s ancestors. If we were to do that in India, we’d be at each other’s throats 24/7 (even more than we are now). 

But with Queen Elizabeth II, the head of an Empire which has conquered so much of the world that a country celebrates its independence from Great Britain every seven days, it’s a bit more complicated.

Argumentum ad hominem is an oft-repeated logical fallacy but for once let’s consider why Uju Anya’s generational trauma might have evoked such a strong reaction.

She is the daughter of a Nigerian father and a Caribbean mother, two nations with enough blood-splattered legacy to trouble anyone. And the Nigerian backstory is post-colonial, which brings us back to Frederick Forsyth.

Before he was a best-selling author who redefined the thriller genre, Forsyth was a journalist.  One of his assignments was as a BBC correspondent to "report the all-conquering march of the Nigerian Army" in Biafra. Refusing to toe the snobbish British propaganda, he sent an actual report about the Biafra War that led to rebukes from his seniors and the establishment. Disgusted, Forsyth quit and went to cover the war himself, refusing to tout any side’s propaganda.

As he wrote about his time: “I was told quite bluntly, then, it is not our policy to cover this war. This was a period when the Vietnam War was front-page headlines almost every day, regarded broadly as an American cock-up, and this particularly British cock-up in Nigeria was not going to be covered. I smelt news management. I don't like news management."

The Nigerian Civil War – between the Federal government of Nigeria and the Igbos who wanted a separatist Biafran nation – largely went under the radar at a time when the Vietnam War was hitting headlines across the globe. This happened despite the fact that between 45,000 to 100,000 soldiers were killed while over 2 million Biafran civilians died due to a manmade famine thanks to the Nigerian naval blockade. It’s estimated that between 2 to 4.5 million people were displaced. 

Of course, the truth has a way of finding the light. Eventually, pictures found their way to London and the images shocked the world, particularly those of children suffering from acute protein deficiency.

Taking all that into context, while one might disagree with Prof Anya’s tone and tenor, there’s no denying the rage she and her people feel. 

And those weren’t the only crimes during Elizabeth II’s reign. These included the Malayan Emergency (which included using Agent Orange to starve insurgents), the brutal repression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the war in Yemen and Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. 

This brings us back to the question – do we hold the Queen responsible for the aforementioned? For what it’s worth, it was called Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) and while her defendants might argue that she was just a figurehead, she was the figurehead of a brutal imperialist force. 

If she felt moral scruples, she could’ve taken a page from her uncle who preferred a dalliance to the throne and abdicated. But she never did, and for which we can’t blame her. Who’d want to give up untold riches that one is handed down by virtue of one’s birth?

Imagine travelling the world without a passport and legally being able to commit any crime without the law having an inkling what to do even if you went on a murderous rampage. 

So, while one might understand the reluctance to abdicate, continuing as the Queen meant that she acquiesces to the crimes of the British government, not to mention those committed by her family members which includes sexual assault of minors and racism against its own members.

So, why didn't she abdicate?  Normal people are wont to hold on to the riches they get by hook and crook (or in this case royal decree). If you are born with a super-charged silver spoon, why would you want to give up?

Thankfully, Charles III is unlikely to evoke the same sort of loyalty, love and respect as his mother, even if he is deemed the boss of all swans and bees. Elizabeth II was the last Royal and with her demise, the icon’s status will be downgraded. 

It’s unlikely that another can take her place and will hopefully open the eyes of the British public to the follies of spending so much taxpayer's money to support the members of the Crown. The British Royals, unlike any other monarchy in existence, managed to survive for so long because of its ability to mould itself with the times, but all things must end.

When Meghan and Harry appeared on Oprah, Patrick Fayne had written for The Irish Times that this wasn't about “ungrateful pauper elevated by monarchy" but a “union of two great houses, the Windsors and Californian Celebrity". Only one, he noted had a future and it was the one with the Netflix deal (instead of being the subject of a Netflix show). 

Hopefully, this is how House Windsor loses wind. And as a post-script, it’s an intriguing coincidence that she passed away on the same day on which Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s statue was installed at the India Gate. The previous tenant? The man about whom Tagore certainly didn’t write Jana Gana Mana – King George V, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather. Make of that what you will. 

The views expressed are the author's own. 

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Nirmalya Dutta
Bob Dylan fan. Manchester United sufferer.
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Updated: 14 Sep 2022, 02:22 PM IST
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