All that is solid melts into air
The death of Elizabeth II, while inevitable and expected — she was 96, after all — has still produced a degree of shock in many. This is not unexpected — the monarchy as a whole has a complex legacy, and the duration of her reign is such that many simply had not considered the possibility of another monarch, despite no one being immortal. The vast majority of Bermudians, and the wider empire as a whole, have never known any other monarch. Whether you were a monarchist or a republican, her reign seemed solid and constant.
A large part of this is no doubt the inherent conservatism of people: one seldom questions things as they are, if they have always been as far as you can remember. Being born into a monarchy, and a particular monarch’s reign, one generally just accepts that is the way it should be. One doesn’t necessarily question it. When one factors in the various propaganda involved — be it the various pomp of the Royal Bermuda Regiment, of the Throne Speech, or royal visits and even the somewhat more subtle omnipresence on our currency, stamps and even the banner of the daily paper, it is no surprise that subjects of the empire generally accept the monarchy without a critical thought. It just is.
At least, that is, until it isn’t.
The death of Elizabeth II presents a moment of rupture in the psyche of the body politic, and an opportunity to reflect on whether the monarchy makes sense in the 21st century — let alone whether the monarchy as it exists is fit for purpose. The solidity that her long reign presented melts away now as we reflect on the ascension to the throne of Charles III.
I recognise that I write in the wake of a week of royalist propaganda — we have been saturated by innumerable pieces of nostalgia around the former monarch, as well as the rituals of pomp that are required for the “legitimacy” of the new monarch, culminating in the formal coronation ceremony and likely imperial tour.
Today we wouldn’t accept anyone getting a job solely because of an accident of birth. And yet we turn a blind spot to the head of state, simply because it has always been, and we haven’t applied critical thinking to it for the most part. In fact, more often than not, we have celebrated in the glamour of backwardness that the monarchy is, with many public figures happy to celebrate their role as subjects rather than citizens, overjoyed to buy into the fantasy of monarchy, aided and abetted by Hollywood fairytales alongside various shiny trinkets and fancy titles.
To me, the monarchy represents an inherently anti-democratic institution. The very concept of an unelected head of state, determined by an accident of birth, is by definition anti-democratic — not to mention providing support to racist ideologies of inherent genetic superiority. The monarchy is little more than the mascots of hereditary privilege, inequality and deference, a potent symbol of empire and the psychological colonisation of our people.
To some, particularly White members of the empire — especially members of the English nation — the monarchy (and particularly the former monarch) is sacrosanct, there from the modern mythology of Britain, forged in the Blitz, and compounded by a nostalgia for the “golden age” of the empire. For others, notably those colonised by primarily the English nation — although the other components of the imperial core also played key roles in building the empire — the monarchy represents all the atrocities of empire, including during the postwar death throes of the greater empire. It is no wonder that to many of the colonised, or people whose countries have been destroyed by British adventurism (Iraq, Libya), have fundamentally different views of the monarchy than those who, as part of the imperial core, were blind to the harsh reality of empire.
The death of one monarch and the ascension of a new monarch do provide us with the opportunity to critically evaluate the monarchy, despite the surge of propaganda it also unleashes. It can serve as a catalyst for an honest conversation about the legacy of empire, as well as for constitutional questions as a whole. Whether this involves a push for a British federal republic inclusive of Bermuda and the other remaining faded outposts of empire, or a question about Bermuda’s relationship with the imperial core, I am unsure. Quite frankly there is space for both — advocating for a British federal republic and advocating for Bermudian independence are not necessarily the same thing. I do, however, support both.
It is also worth considering the wider consequences of Elizabeth II’s death.
Rightly or wrongly, she did provide a unifying symbol for the nations of the imperial core. This has been eroding since Margaret Thatcher, with the growth of civic nationalist movements in Scotland and, to a lesser degree in Wales, along with a reactionary nationalism in England, of which Brexit and the present right-wing populist trend of the Conservative Party represent. It is not hard to imagine her death serving as a catalyst for accelerating the break-up of Britain, albeit with an ever more reactionary England struggling to cope with its sense of self after the loss of empire and now the end of its second Elizabethan age. There is also a clear mandate for Scottish independence, with only the reactionary refusal to allow self-determination from London holding back the birth of an independent Scotland. The tensions caused by Brexit are accelerating this already also in Wales and Northern Ireland.
All that is solid melts into air. And with the death of the former monarch and the start of a new monarch’s reign, we have the opportunity to also start conversations afresh on our constitutional system and relationship with empire – inclusive of questions of a republic, independence and reparations.
• Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University