“I’m not a royalist, but…”

“I’m not a royalist, but…”

I’ve seen that phrase a lot from fellow countrymen in the last couple of days. Much like the infamous declaration “I’m not a racist but…” preceding a deeply racist statement, there seems to be an overriding sentiment amongst those asked for — or just offering — comment on the death of Elizabeth Windsor that they must not be seen to condone the monarchy while simultaneously expressing a deep affection for its most prominent member. As a phrase though, it seems to encapsulate everything about the modern monarchy, its rebranding and the deeply conflicted nature of England’s relationship with itself.

The death of Elizabeth Windsor has been met with a wave of hysterical public grief and a coordinated self-serving meltdown from the British Establishment not seen since the death of Diana Spencer in 1997, matched only by the wave of celebration for the demise of a colonialist figurehead whose very robes are drenched in the blood of invaded nations. There really can’t be an in-between. The moment it was reported that doctors were ‘concerned for the Queen’s health’ and family began to fly in on their private jets to be ‘at her side’, we all knew what it meant and most us braced for the madness that is now following. Many are the memes and tweets explaining, in depth, the legacy of imperial oppression she leaves behind, unmended and untouched, and the truly disgusting wealth the monarchy has harvested from foreign nations (or ‘territories’ as Charles put it in his first speech upon succession) it continues to proudly flaunt in televised pronouncements, yet these are mainly on social media, shared via text or simply spoken amongst friends. Despite this being a huge percentage of opinion in private there is an equally large percentage who have openly and unironically expressed their real sadness, not least in the mainstream media. Lavish editions of the British press coat their front pages in sumptuous images of Elizabeth Windsor from her coronation to Jubilee, while a BBC News presenter stated that discussions of the devastating financial crisis the country is currently drowning in is “insignificant now” while the whole of British broadcasting and media organisations have cancelled their entire schedule for the month to better suit a ‘period of mourning’ while every company, every billboard and every website now features solemn black home pages or are adorned with black bordered images of Elizabeth to signify not just grief but a quiet reverence.

And this is where the phrase emerged.

Whether it’s from the vox pops of the proles on the street or talking heads in expensive newsrooms, invariably, when asked, the speaker prefixes their statement expressing sadness about the death of Mrs Windsor with “I’m not a royalist, but…”. For a certain section of the avowedly Liberal middle class, it’s a shield against a certain kind of criticism. ‘We’re sensitive enough to understand the flaws of the monarchy but part of the Establishment (or want to be) enough that I can’t make those criticisms’ it seems to say. The sheer contradiction of the position is hilarious and untenable and yet its a very sharp and precarious fence that a lot of people are desperate to sit on. But why has it ended up this way? In large part, it’s due to the extraordinary effort on the part of the Monarchy in rebranding itself.

Post World War II, Britain lost a lot of its ‘territories’ and over the last hundred years the Empire has shrunk and then been renamed as ‘The Commonwealth’. With the advance of civil rights movements around the world and violent demands for self-determination from nations like India and South Africa, the British Empire has been in decline ever since. With the monarchy as a distillation of that Empire that was built upon, and still profits from, the resources and labour of foreign nations, the institution sought to arrest its decline as an act of self-preservation. With no legislative powers but an enormous amount of ‘soft-power’ and extreme amounts of wealth, the monarchy bent all of its considerable strength on taking the monarchy from an outward display of British strength to which the public were loyal subjects to, into a group of personalities that were loyal to the public.

The word ‘duty’ has been a constant throughout Elizabeth Windsor’s tenure and has been the abiding sentiment expressed by the devoted in the last few days, now adopted by her son in his speech to the nation too. The Crown no longer decrees, it serves. With public appearances reserved for charity events or Royal shindigs (that all had public invites) the barriers to the people in the high castle weren’t torn down but opened as a tourist attraction. All of which was in service to making Elizabeth a personality, not an aloof figure only seen on stamps and the paltry money the public earns that can no longer cover costs of living. And it worked. Comedian Alan Davies made a joke in his stand up from the 90s that “you could wire people up to any number of bits of electrical equipment, all sorts of monitors, flash a picture of the Queen up and nothing. Flatline. All round.” It’s a truly remarkable feat that the, terrifyingly named, ‘Firm’ (the informal title for what is essentially the government body of the Monarchy) has managed to reorganise one of the most prominent and powerful institutions in the world into ‘The Nation’s Grandma’. And it is here the seemingly untenable statement of “I’m not a royalist, but…” rests.

Everybody liked Liz. Well, a lot of people. For most of us she was a sweet little old lady. The days of Kings and the court, making decrees upon the nation and sending lads off to war, though only relatively recently dismissed, seemed like far off days of the ancient past. The people living in former, or current, colonies are not afforded that luxury. The poverty and oppression they continue to experience as a result of British colonialism being very real and epitomised in a sovereign ruler, but to the people of — let’s be honest here — England, “the monarchy” was background for a portrait of “The Queen”. Consequently most of the people I know and grew up with had no strong feelings about “The Queen” at all. Just a nice little old lady (even in the 80s) who showed up at parties and sporting events, smiled, twisted her wrist in that weird wave she did, and went for walks in the country with Corgis.

Much was made of “Will the Monarchy survive?!” after the death of Diana Spencer but sure enough, weather that storm she did. Because Diana’s death wasn’t about the institution of the monarchy or the sustained attack campaign by Royalists since her and Charles’ divorce, it was about the paparazzi’s invasiveness in the private lives of celebrities and the tragedy of the ‘Queen of our Hearts’ as the nakedly hypocritical newspapers dubbed her only weeks after all but calling her a whore for being in relationships outside of royalty. But there Liz stood, steadfast, strong, dutiful, like a good Granny should. In the 21st century she weathered the global financial crisis, despite retaining her ludicrous wealth, her grandson seceding from the royal line, a Pandemic, further deaths of family members, accusations of paedophilia and sexual assault against her son, various dodgy financial dealings and an overall global campaign of distaste towards Britain’s colonial past, and has emerged as ‘Elizabeth the Great’ so the British Establishment have dubbed her. Somehow amongst all this, the royalist publicity machine continued to churn in its favour, with multiple televised weddings, births and the right-wing, royalist propaganda fest that is ‘The Crown’, further deepening a global appraisal of the monarchy as simply ‘The Queen’.

What astonishes me to this day is how the monarch has been resold and even deified amongst the working class. With royalist campaigns by papers like the Sun that overwhelmingly sell to working class readers and the free parties encouraged during Jubilees and official events, to say nothing of the intrinsic nationalism sold to the working class as heroic through the singing of God Save the Queen at major sporting events, working class people have been bolstered into some of Elizabeth’s most vocal supporters, despite the fact it is through the very existence of the monarchy that they are kept in the abject poverty most families find themselves in today and even why they are called a ‘class’ at all. The “gawd bless yer ma’am” rhetoric of the right wing press and media has made great sport of utilising the “patriotism” of supporting the crown and tying it to communal pleasures like football, Christmas and country walks in royal parks.

But now that’s all in jeopardy. With the transition of power to a King, an archetypal patriarch, whom has not even a smidgeon of the public goodwill (or even the Establishment’s) towards him that his mother had, the monarchy is having to tread incredibly carefully because, despite having spilled all this ink explaining the cognitive dissonance presented by a monarchy in the 21st Century, none of that is really what this is all about. It’s much more complex.

The Monarchy is one of the biggest landowners in the UK. Less than 1% of the land here is owned by the population whereas an estimated 30% is owned by aristocracy and gentry (Monarchy adjacent rich people) and 1.4% is owned by the Crown. Only 6% of Britain is developed, the majority of which land is owned by just 25,000 people in a nation of nearly 69 million (nice). A lot of that land is protected by organisations associated with or created by royalty, allowing the UK to retain its title as a ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ and not covered by ‘Dark Satanic Mills’. The Crown and associated charitable foundations (The Prince’s Trust etc) donate millions to serve under funded and underprivileged areas, something many argue is the least they could do given that their cash comes mostly from our taxes, but given our departure from the EU (something tax payers are also paying for and in larger amounts) a lot of funding for similar areas has disappeared (where’s that £350m Mr Johnson?) and those royal charities now provide much needed assistance. The Crown also invested heavily in ‘soft power’ over the centuries, most notably with Victoria marrying off various members of the royal family into various other royal families across Europe creating the cringe-inducing conundrum whereby the monarchy had close familial associations with our avowed enemies during both World Wars. This investment in family ties around the globe however has created a significant amount of political and financial pull that has allowed the UK to retain its place in the top ten wealthiest and most powerful nations on Earth despite being a rainy, little island in the North Atlantic (that and the City of London essentially being a tax haven). The much vaunted ‘tourism’ the monarchy brings is dubious in how much that asserted income can be directly related to royal members or institutions but undeniably has created a sustained visibility for what is, in fact, a dwindling empire and a nation slowly whittling its way to nothing with its isolationist policies. Most of our most productive and celebrated educational institutions are supported by and attended by royalty. My favourite chocolate producing confectionary company carries a Royal Warrant. The monarch adorns our money and our stamps. What I’m trying to illustrate is that the Monarchy is not simply an inbred family living in distant ivory towers who occasionally put on pageants for the great unwashed to wave flags at, but a deeply ingrained aspect of public, political, cultural and social life in the UK, love it or loathe it. In turn this also puts the issue of British Nationalism into stark relief.

The Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has never been more tenuous than it is today. Scotland has never really been that happy being part of the UK or under the English Crown but since Brexit Scotland has renewed its demands for independence with some polls saying the result would be different than the recent 2014 referendum. The post Brexit border disputes have put Northern Ireland in an increasingly difficult position whereby a hard border could spell a return to the violence of the 20th century. Wales’ own burgeoning independence movement continues to rumble away, most vocally when the Welsh language continues to be sidelined by British government institutions. All while England considers itself the de facto ‘leader’ of the Union where all money and resources should pass through and take its tithe. This is to say nothing of the political map of the Sceptered Isles which reveals each nation dominated by a single party, typically with a nationalist — even separatist in the case of Scotland and NI — agenda, if not mandate. The monarchy was the institution that glued these nations together in the first place, the banner beneath which all bowed (or were forced to kneel). By narrowing the focus of the entire institution to be embodied and represented by Elizabeth Windsor, her death at a time of incredible division seems auspicious, figuratively speaking, and a viable political opportunity literally speaking. The seething nationalism, jingoism and isolationism in England that was drawn out of the wound during the 2016 referendum, has healed over, scabbed and hardened into a truly scary recidivist ideology around out-of-date beliefs of exceptionalism and Rule Britannia etc, that was always there but mercifully dampened until late. All of which is, irrevocably, tied to the Crown.

And this is the real depth of the problem with “not being a royalist, but…” because, unwittingly, if you are a British subject, no matter how you rail against it, for good or ill… you are, in fact, a royalist. In Britain, rather creepily and in all kinds of ways, you support and are supported by royalty. That is not to say it’s a good thing or should continue but the monarchy is so intrinsically part of day to day life for millions, if not billions of people around the world that it is inescapable right now. Where twenty years ago there may have been a case for perhaps starting the process of reducing the monarchy further with a goal to later disband after the death of Elizabeth, in a post Brexit, hyper-conservative, pro-nationalist England, ‘the monarchy must remain lest our nation fall’, and all that other nativist rubbish. Elizabeth Windsor was not the monarchy, but she was made to look like it, and the Monarchy IS England. Where a nation like the USA finds its sense of national identity in more abstract places, objects and iconography like bald eagles and the constitution, England has a living, breathing embodiment of its nation sitting on a literal throne and without that, what are we? We can exist only while the crown itself exists, is the message.

For my own part, like most people I know, I didn’t mind Liz. She was a nice little old lady in the castle who seemed to say the right wrong thing at the right wrong time (unlike her godawful husband who never hid his colonialist roots and borderline contempt for his subjects) and was generally just a smiley face that showed up when people needed something to rally around. I also loathe the monarchy. Regardless of whether you want to talk about its legacy of violence and oppression, even if you ignore its hideous, blood soaked past, the monarchy continues to be a white supremacist institution that defends paedophiles, sexual predators and hoards wealth, property and jewelry worth more than the GDP of the countries they stole it all from. There is no nobility in the British nobility and we as a nation appear as barbaric as the means by which the Crown was created while it still exists. Our European neighbours did away with their monarchs long ago but we proudly cling to ours, again, in dotage to the nice lady and her corgis. And yet my father was born in the colonies, a British subject abroad. Like it or not, I am a product of the ‘royal territories’. So while the monarchy disgusts me I am part of it, bound to it like a man tied to the mast of a sinking ship. Consequently I cannot help but be made to feel uncomfortable by my friends here and in other countries proudly declaring Elizabeth “dines in hell tonight” or that Brits are akin to North Koreans in our wailing and weeping over the death of a national leader (though its a bit rich coming from Americans who literally pledge allegiance to a flag every morning and sang mournful songs on national television when Obama left office), because it illustrates how indoctrinated I am and we all are to both ‘crown and country’ that are one and the same. As someone on the radio put it, Elizabeth was part of the “weft and weave of the nation”, and she was. By design. And her death and its fall out has begun the unpicking of that thread. Though how long it will take to unravel is anyone’s guess.

Ultimately I feel very little over the death of Elizabeth Windsor, another celebrity I had no interest in has passed, and yet that isn’t an appropriate response for most. I must either by delighted the head of the monster is dead or heartbroken the near divine being has been carried to her rest. I am not sad; what I am is scared. The psychotic nationalism, nativism and, yes truly, the fascism that has emerged like the Leviathan in British public life post-Brexit, will now be allowed to surge, unchecked, back into the ocean and no criticism of it will be heard due to the circumstances. Despite a financial crisis plunging millions into poverty and that will definitely kill people this winter, a shrinking life expectancy in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, wars across the globe, a fuel crisis, a broken supply chain and the tail end of a pandemic that still persists, the hysterical grief we are seeing or experiencing is reserved for not just a sweet little old lady but a symbol of all that we should have moved passed as nation and instead are falling back into. Another phrase I’ve heard a lot since Thursday is “God Save the King”. A phrase not heard for 70 years. It seems to be bringing back a lot of other things thought long forgotten too.

I wish I could say “I’m not a royalist but…” but the truth is it’s so much more complicated than that. So I won’t say it. I will say that I sympathise with a family that lost their matriarch but I personally feel no sadness because, the fact is:

I am a royalist, but… I did not choose to be. And I don’t want to be.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

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Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.