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Roundtable: Amid Tributes to Queen Elizabeth, Deadly Legacy of British Colonialism Cannot Be Ignored

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We host a roundtable on the life and legacy of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at the age of 96. She was the country’s longest-reigning monarch, serving for 70 years and presiding over the end of the British Empire. Her death set off a period of national mourning in the U.K. and has thrown the future of the monarchy into doubt. “The monarchy really has come to represent deep and profound and grave inequality,” says Cambridge scholar Priya Gopal, author of “Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent.” We also speak with Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff, Novara Media editor Ash Sarkar and Pedro Welch, former chair of the Barbados Reparations Task Force, who says the British monarchy’s brutal record in the Caribbean and other parts of the world must be addressed. “The enslavement of our ancestors has led to a legacy of deprivation, a legacy that still has to be sorted out,” says Welch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show looking at the life and legacy of Queen Elizabeth II. She died Thursday at the age of 96. She spent 70 years on the throne, longer than any other British monarch. Her son Charles has now become Britain’s new king, taking the name King Charles III. In a statement Thursday, King Charles said, quote, “We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished Sovereign and a much-loved mother. I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world,” unquote.

Queen Elizabeth was coronated in 1953, less than a decade after the end of World War II. Her last public appearance was on Tuesday, when she formally appointed Liz Truss to be Britain’s new prime minister. Truss was the 15th prime minister to serve under the queen. Truss spoke Thursday after Buckingham Palace announced the queen’s death.

PRIME MINISTER LIZ TRUSS: It is a day of great loss, but Queen Elizabeth II leaves a great legacy. Today the crown passes, as it has done for more than a thousand years, to our new monarch, our new head of state, His Majesty King Charles III. With the king’s family, we mourn the loss of his mother. And as we mourn, we must come together as a people to support him, to help him bear the awesome responsibility that he now carries for us all. We offer him our loyalty and devotion, just as his mother devoted so much to so many for so long.

AMY GOODMAN: Across the world, nations paid tribute to the queen. In a statement, President Biden described the queen as, quote, “a stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy who deepened the bedrock alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States,” unquote. On Thursday, he signed a condolence book at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and spoke briefly about the queen.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I had the opportunity to meet her before she passed, and she was an incredibly gracious and decent woman. And the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in their grief.

AMY GOODMAN: The death of Queen Elizabeth has also led to new calls for Britain to make amends for colonial-era crimes. Carnegie Mellon professor Uju Anya made headlines Thursday for her sharp criticism of the queen. The Nigerian-born professor wrote, quote, “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.” In a separate tweet, professor Uju Anya wrote, quote, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Twitter removed her tweet. Birmingham City University professor Kehinde Andrews, who is of British African Caribbean heritage, also reflected Thursday on the queen’s legacy.

KEHINDE ANDREWS: I guess it depends what you think a good job of being queen is. So, if a good job of being queen is to represent white supremacy and to represent that link to colonialism, then, yeah, I think she’s done a very good job. And I think if you look at the royal family as an institution, I mean, it’s still very, very strong. It’s weathered some heavy storms, including Prince Andrew, Meghan Markle and all this, and still going strong. And she’s still very, very popular. So, I guess, on a — has she kept the image of the royal family mafia very, very established? Then, yes, I think she’s done a good job.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the future of the British monarchy, we’re joined by British journalist Ash Sarkar, Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff, whose New York Times guest essay is headlined “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire,” and University of Cambridge professor Priya Gopal, author of Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Professor Gopal, let’s begin with you. Your thoughts on the death of the longest-reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II?

PRIYA GOPAL: Well, it is the end of a long, eventful, rich life of the person who was — who had a ringside seat at many important global events, and indeed a role in those events.

I find myself appreciating the circumstances in which she passed. She had good care. She had good medical supervision. She was in secure shelter in a place that she loved. And I am glad for that. I do wonder whether, given the state that Britain is in today, which is in a state of crisis preceding her passing, whether many British pensioners will have the same easeful passing this winter. I fear not. I think many people will be in insecure housing, without heat, potentially without food, and certainly without access — without immediate access to good medical care.

So I’m really struck by the distinction or the difference between the circumstances of Queen Elizabeth’s passing and what many of her subjects may have to endure this coming winter in a country where the monarchy really has come to represent the deep and profound and grave inequality and gap that, you know, is going to be a problem in the months to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Ash Sarkar, you’re on the ground there in London. You’re a journalist, a contributing editor at Novara Media. What is your response to the death and the legacy of Queen Elizabeth?

ASH SARKAR: Well, I suppose my personal response is one of curiosity, interest. There are very few moments that could be described as truly historic, but the death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch is, of course, definitely historic. We tend to measure our periods of historical time here in the U.K. by kings and queens rather than other things that might be going on politically. So it is, I think, pretty central to our national self-image.

I think one thing to perhaps explain for American viewers is just how top-down and choreographed the national mourning is. When Princess Diana died in 1997, it was very much a bottom-up outpouring of grief. We had people spontaneously laying flowers outside Buckingham Palace. And, in fact, the palace was very surprised by the emotional response which was offered up by the country. When the queen dies, it is a different thing. The BBC immediately changes its programming, so there will be no comedies being scheduled between now and the funeral. Even the music on the radio changes to more somber playlists. Television presenters are all dressed in black. And even though this isn’t something which is directed by either the government or royal protocol, public events, like football matches, are being suspended.

Now, one of the really critical things is that parliamentary business is also suspended. One of the things that Priya mentioned is that we are, of course, in the middle of this dreadful cost-of-living crisis. One of the main causes behind that is that energy bills are out of control. Now Parliament will be suspended, perhaps for seven days, perhaps for 10. And depending on how those days are calculated, whether it’s like business days or whether it’s like calendar days, that could mean that the opportunity to pass the legislation needed to control energy prices, that window of opportunity closes. Now, the government will be negotiating with the palace in order to try and make the time to pass that legislation, but I think very few people would consider it an ideal political system where an elective government effectively has to haggle with the institution of the royal family, the institution of the palaces, in order to get vital governmental business done.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Maya Jasanoff, you wrote this piece in The New York Times, the headline being “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire.” Talk about the queen and the empire.

MAYA JASANOFF: The queen was born into a world that looked radically different in certain ways from the one that she departed yesterday. She was born in 1926 at a time when something on the order of one in five or one in six people in the world was a subject of her family. And it’s an astonishing extent of global power. When she became queen in 1952, the prime minister was Winston Churchill. The leaders of the USSR, China and the U.S. were, respectively, Stalin, Mao and Truman. These were figures who were, of course, you know, associated now in our minds with a vanished era, and the queen herself long, long outlived them. And I think one of the consequences of that is that the empire, which largely disintegrated under her — the course of her tenure on the throne, had this kind of public face, in the form of the queen, that actually survived well into the 21st century.

So, you know, I find myself reflecting on this occasion at, you know, of course, some of the things that Priya pointed out, the longevity of a person who, by virtue of a uniquely privileged birth, had a ringside seat to all of these amazing events and also had a remarkable passage into her later life. But, you know, normally the death of a 96-year-old woman wouldn’t account for any headlines whatsoever. And the fact that she was still sort of with us into this radically new world, I find really a sort of moment for reflection on what kind of visions people have for a global order. And I think this is a really important moment for trying to think through what new visions might look like in a period, obviously, of both national crisis for the U.K. and, in many ways, global crisis, with, of course, climate change and the rise of authoritarianism.

AMY GOODMAN: And on that issue of, well, many commentators — and it’s not only British media that is only covering this. The U.S. media, especially the cable channels, are almost exclusively covering just the queen’s death. But if you can talk about Queen Elizabeth, when it comes to — one of their comments of the commentators, she was deeply knowledgeable about foreign policy, which goes to the issue of the British Empire and what we can — should understand about the 20th century. We’ll start with Professor Jasanoff, then to Priya Gopal.

MAYA JASANOFF: Sure. So, the queen, in her role as monarch, she was never an empress in name. That title had been stripped from the British monarchy with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. But she did preside over the consolidation and massive expansion of the Commonwealth, into which most of the former British colonies were assimilated, became members. And her role as head of the Commonwealth was manifestly something that she took incredibly seriously. Now, she, presumably, undertook this, at least in part, out of the idea that she was sustaining certain sorts of values that members of her class had long associated with their imperial rule — for example, defense of constitutionalism and the rule of law and human rights and so on. She also personally, clearly, was involved in agitating, to the extent that any monarch does in the extremely limited span that they allow themselves, against apartheid and so on. But, you know, it’s also really important to note that the Commonwealth was a vehicle, designed to be a vehicle for the perpetuation of British global influence, even when the colonies chose to break away from that. So, you know, to the extent that the queen kind of leaned into that role, she was part and parcel of a perpetuation of myths of imperial benevolence that carried on deep into the 20th century.

Another quick point I would make is that the queen has these — had these weekly meetings, more or less, with all of her prime ministers. And many, many of the prime ministers have commented on, as you say, how knowledgeable she was and what good advice she gave and so on. But it’s interesting that this is a part of the government business of the U.K., that is not on the record at all. And although the power of the monarchy, in all sorts of ways, is really rather negligible in terms of their explicit ability to dictate policy and so on, the fact that every single week the prime minister has an audience with the queen that is not monitored or documented or anything of the kind is quite a remarkable black box, I think, at the center of the British state.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Priya Gopal, you wrote the book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. We usually speak to you at the University of Cambridge. Can you elaborate more on the British Empire, looking at Africa, looking at India, looking at — and in moment we’re going to go directly to — the Caribbean, to Barbados?

PRIYA GOPAL: Yeah. I mean, I slightly wonder if we in fact live in a deeply different world from the one that she came into in 1952. Let us remember that when she became queen at Treetops in Kenya, Britain had just commenced a brutal, vicious insurgency that carried on for several years. In recent years, we have had Kenyans who were tortured by the British raise lawsuits, successfully in some cases, around the vicious violence of the British state at that point. On the matter of whether, you know — and I do wonder whether we actually live in a deeply different world. We live in a world where formally the British crown is no longer an imperial crown, but let us remember that Elizabeth II was, in a sense, obsessed with the Commonwealth, made sure that Charles III would also be head of the Commonwealth. And we have to probe this cozy notion that somehow empire ended beautifully, and then there was this happy nation of families that was the Commonwealth, and she sat at the top of the table, and now Charles III will sit at the top of that table. I think, as Maya just suggested, much of that order has not changed.

But the other thing I want to say is that we often talk about monarchy as an anachronism. So, you know, she came into a world where monarchy was normal, and now it’s an anachronism. Actually, we still have a world order in which, both in Britain and in the colonies, there is enormous concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. And monarchy really, in a sense, is not anachronistic. It represents exactly what we are ruled by across the world, in the U.S. as much as anywhere else: power and privilege and wealth in the hands of a few, which the rest of us are then invited to worship and think of as perfectly normal. The monarchy is really one aspect of plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. And that is something that hasn’t essentially changed from 1952 to 2022. If anything, here we are again, ruled by a handful of oligarchs across the world, as ordinary people in Britain and beyond suffer deprivation. So, I slightly wonder if we do in fact live in a very different world from the one that she inherited.

And, you know, in terms of the knowledge of foreign policy, I think what it is is that she was very faithful and dutiful, as the word is often used in the British press, about representing the British state’s understanding of its own foreign policy. I have no evidence that she was knowledgeable about what was happening in the colonies, that she was knowledgeable about the enormous violence with which empire ended in many places. When she came to power, there were brutal counterinsurgencies not just in Kenya, but in Malaya and Cyprus. Many of the records of the crimes of the British state at that point have been destroyed willfully by the British state. So, you know, how much did she know? We won’t know that. But did she speak on these matters? Could she speak on these matters? Was she knowledgeable about what took place? I’m afraid I have no evidence of anything other than that she, and the institution of the monarchy, perpetuates the British state’s and the British elites’ narrative of itself and of Britain.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in November, Barbados officially removed Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, freeing itself from the British monarchy after nearly 400 years of colonization. Prince Charles joined the ceremony, where he formally acknowledged Britain’s, quote, “appalling atrocity of slavery” in the Caribbean. Joining us now from Christ Church, Barbados, is Pedro Welch. He is a historian, a former chair of the Barbados Reparations Task Force. Professor Welch, you were in Britain when the queen’s death was announced. You just flew back to Barbados. Thank you so much for joining us on the phone. Can you respond to the queen’s death and what the monarchy has meant for Barbados?

PEDRO WELCH: Thank you very much. Most certainly, the passing of the queen has some importance with respect to the very, very fragmented relationship between the various colonies in the Caribbean, and including Barbados, and Britain. I’m saying this because I’m [inaudible] for the history of the monarchy and the history of the slave trade. The British monarchy was embedded in the institutions that financed the beginning of the slave trade from Britain. And through the centuries, the British monarchy continued to benefit from the colonial exploitation of the plantation colonies in the Caribbean.

But having said that, we are into a very interesting period in which there are a number of things that tend to coincide. The first one is that monarchy is really not an anachronism when it comes to people of African descent, because there were monarchies in Africa. And, in fact, the very first slave rebellion that was planned, that we know of, in Barbados, in that first slave rebellion, the enslaved people in fact planned to install a monarch in Barbados as king of Barbados. So the notion of a monarchy is not necessarily foreign to African sensibilities. And it is in that context that there’s a tremendous level of respect — it’s not necessarily agreement, but level of respect — for an institution of monarchy, an institution that speaks of power. When one looks at the whole question of the persistence of a parliamentary system in the Caribbean and in Barbados, in which the monarch was the head of — the queen was the head of state, that reflects empire, the very successful acculturation of the subject populations into aspects of a British culture, so that I think most Barbadians, most Caribbean people will view her passing certainly with the respect that one will give to any person of authority.

But at the same time, there are some of us who understand the history of our people, who understand that the enslavement of our ancestors has led to a legacy of deprivation, a legacy that still has to be sorted out. That is one of the reasons why we have the CARICOM Reparations Commission, which is seeking to get Britain and other former colonial powers to acknowledge the tremendous harm that has been done.

So, back again [inaudible] to the question, there will be respect, the respect that all the Africans generally give to a patriarch or a matriarch on their passing. But that respect does not necessarily mean that we have forgotten what that monarchy did in its institutional phase, what it did to our people in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Ash Sarkar, I know you have to leave. We go back from Barbados to London. You’re a journalist there. If you can talk about what’s acceptable to talk about in this time of mourning? And I think the mourning, the new king, Charles III, has announced, will go something like seven days beyond the funeral, not clear when that will be. What is acceptable? And also, if you can talk about now King Charles III, Prince Charles?

ASH SARKAR: In terms of what’s considered acceptable by the media, it is very, very little. So, in some ways, this is an opportunity to redraw the boundaries of legitimate opinion ever tighter. It’s still technically against the law to call for the abolition of the monarchy on British media. It’s not a law that’s enforced, but I think that tells you something about the framing of these issues. I think that one of the problems that we found consistently in this country is that the monarchy has managed to adapt itself to a totally revolutionized media environment in a way which has consolidated a lot of their cultural power. Now, this wasn’t always going to be a certain thing. During the 1990s, tabloid press intrusion, in terms of the status of the marriages of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, really threatened to demystify and to kill the deference which the press had traditionally shown the royal family forever. Now, the queen, as an individual, managed to largely float above that kind of fray, but it did threaten the monarchy in terms of their public image for quite some time. That era, I think, has drawn to a close. And, in fact, what we’ve seen is a renewed insistence on deference. One way in which you can see that really clearly is the suspension of the football matches this weekend. Now, as anyone knows about, England, we are a football-mad nation. This wasn’t something which even happened after the death of George VI, the queen’s father. So this is something which is relatively new. And I think that tells you something about that top-down mood of national mourning that I was just describing earlier.

When it comes to Prince Charles, he is the oldest monarch we’ve had at the time of the ascension to the throne. I think that does pose some difficulties for the nation’s self-image. The queen coming to the throne as a young woman, the mother of a growing family, was something which was really integral to her public image. She was seen as a maternal and grandmotherly figure. And that was an image which was very carefully cultivated by her press advisers. Priya has been talking a lot about the nature of the Commonwealth and the way in which it reembodies many of the imperialist dynamics. I think that this is in anecdote which kind of spells out the uneven distribution of power within the Commonwealth. The queen’s former private secretary, Martin Charteris, described the queen descending upon the Commonwealth as being like nanny or mother, and that she could discipline her unruly children with a single look — “No more of your bloody nonsense.” And that maternal image was really central, I think, to the queen steering the monarchy through a time of profound change, the end of formal empire, at least, and also the media revolution. Prince Charles coming to the throne as already an old man, as somebody whose private life has been splashed all over the front pages of British tabloids, it’s a very different thing. It’s, I think, in some ways, been tarnished by some of these more intrusive press practices. And I wonder if what we’ll see is a redoubling on monarchical fervor on the part of the press in order to make up for their former bad behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Democracy Now! isn’t British media. Would you call, Ash, for the abolition of the monarchy?

ASH SARKAR: I’m a republican. I think that a modern democracy —

AMY GOODMAN: That has a different meaning in the United States.

ASH SARKAR: — should be democratic accountability. Pardon? Oh yeah, I understand that. So, right, by a Republican, I mean that a monarch, constitutional or not, should not be the head of state. I think that we should have an elected president, because one of the problems with having the kind of uncodified constitution that we have here in the U.K., whilst also having a so-called constitutional monarch, is that the exercise of power, in some ways, is very, very opaque.

I can give you another example of this. The Privy Council, which is made up of British lords and MPs, ministers and former ministers, is still the highest court of appeal for many countries in the Commonwealth, countries which include British overseas territories of, shall we say, ambiguous status, like the British Virgin Islands, which are a notorious international tax haven. And that ambiguous legal status, and the fact that the Privy Council is still the highest court of appeal, means that, in some ways, the British Virgin Islands can operate as this kind of, you know, dark twin sibling of the city of London. So, if the city of London isn’t good enough for you to hide your wealth from public authorities, then you can just stash it in the British Virgin Islands, and legal proceedings will hardly ever see the light of day, because the government of the British Virgin Islands and the Privy Council in the British government are always arguing about whose responsibility it actually is.

So, constitutional monarchy allows for that very opaque exercise of power, which I think is, in itself, politically toxic. But even if that wasn’t the case, I think, as a modern state, we should be looking towards an elected head of state rather than one who is placed there by this narrative of bloodline superiority.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. And an interesting fact: Even as Harry and Meghan Markle left the royal family and charged the royal family with racism, their children will now become prince and princess, Archie and Lilibet Diana, who live in the United States, because Harry’s father, Prince Charles, has now ascended to the throne, and they are his grandchildren. That’s King Charles III. Ash Sarkar, thanks so much for being with us, contributing editor at Novara Media in London; Pedro Welch, historian and former chair of the Barbados Reparations Task Force, joining us from Barbados, just back from London; Harvard University professor Maya Jasanoff, we’ll link to your New York Times op-ed, “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire”; and University of Cambridge professor Priya Gopal, author of Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent.

Next up, no sacrifice zones. Frontline communities from Appalachia rally in Washington to protest Senator Manchin’s Mountain Valley Pipeline. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “The World Turned Upside Down” by Billy Bragg. To see his performances at Democracy Now! and interviews, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

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