The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Queen Elizabeth II and the end of Britain’s imperial age

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Queen Elizabeth II died Thursday afternoon at the age of 96. Her seven-decade reign, longer than that of any other monarch of her realm stretching back to before the days of the Norman conquest, can be seen as its own Elizabethan age. Through political upheaval and economic crises, family dramas and a revolving door of 15 prime ministers, the queen was serene and enduring. She rarely gave interviews or offered a public opinion, and put forward a regal presence defined by her reticence. Her stoic continuity was, in itself, a form of grace.

In a statement, President Biden described Elizabeth as “a stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy” who “defined an era,” adding that “her legacy will loom large in the pages of British history, and in the story of our world.”

The days to come will see a surfeit of commentary and analysis of the depth of that legacy. But one narrative is inescapable: Elizabeth ascended the throne 70 years ago as the head of a globe-spanning empire. But she died at a moment of contraction and uncertainty, with most of Britain’s colonies gone, its place in Europe a source of tension, and its global status diminished.

“If the reigns of the other great female monarchs of English and British history, Elizabeth I and Victoria, coincided with periods of national expansion, it fell to the second Elizabeth to be a mainstay of a nation coming to terms with a changed place in the world,” observed an editorial in the Financial Times.

Little of this was directly due to the queen herself: She was throughout a ceremonial figure, more often cresting the tides of history than moving them. But in her role, she seemed to embody a story of her nation. Elizabeth understood this herself. She famously said in 1947, on her 21st birthday during a visit to South Africa, “that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service, and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

No matter her decades of faithful service, the imperial family would rapidly shrink. A few months after that speech, Britain’s most important imperial possessions — India and the newly created Pakistan — finally shook off the colonial yoke and declared their independence. Nothing conveyed the grandeur of Britain’s world-striding empire better than Queen Victoria’s earlier assumption of the title of “Empress of India.” For more than a century, the pillaged wealth of the Asian subcontinent had turbocharged the British economy and undergirded Britain’s rise to global preeminence. Gems looted from India made their way into the crowns of British royals, including that of Elizabeth’s mother, a visceral reminder of a link that India finally sundered in 1950 when it officially became a republic.

Still, in 1952, when Elizabeth learned of her father’s death in a Kenyan hunting lodge, Britain possessed more than 70 overseas territories. Now it counts only 14 — mostly scattered, wind-swept islands, the geographically largest of which is the Falkland Islands, a South Atlantic archipelago inhabited by fewer than 3,000 people. Under her watch, not only did the empire contract, but the United Kingdom devolved power to constituent home nations Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The febrile politics of Brexit have raised the prospect — albeit, still remote — of the latter two also breaking away.

As the heir apparent and then queen, Elizabeth was perhaps not privy to all the sordid details of the operations carried out to preserve her empire after the end of World War II and through the 1960s. Those included brutal counterinsurgencies in what’s now Malaysia, Yemen, Cyprus and Kenya — where tens of thousands of people were detained and tortured by colonial authorities as they tried to crack down on the anti-colonial Mau Mau movement. Those misdeeds have only belatedly led to a reckoning in Britain, with the government paying compensation to some victims of its colonial policies, while activists push for the removal of statues and the revision of school curriculums glorifying Britain’s empire.

Elizabeth cast herself as the happy steward of the Commonwealth, now a bloc of 56 independent countries that all, at some point, were ruled by the British crown. But its history was hardly benign. “The Commonwealth had its origins in a racist and paternalistic conception of British rule as a form of tutelage, educating colonies into the mature responsibilities of self-government,” noted Harvard University historian Maya Jasanoff. “Reconfigured in 1949 to accommodate newly independent Asian republics, the Commonwealth was the empire’s sequel and a vehicle for preserving Britain’s international influence.”

The Commonwealth’s present is more mundane. For all the global relevance it gave the queen and her scions, who embarked on periodic, media-soaked tours of their former holdings, it’s a grouping of limited stature and influence. In many instances, the Commonwealth’s member states don’t share political values or economic interests. Nor do the vast majority of them look to Britain for any particular guidance or leadership.

The most notable phenomenon of the last years of Elizabeth’s reign was a movement among Caribbean nations to remove her as the titular head of their states and press demands for reparations for the abuses and exploitation of the colonial era. Barbados led the way, officially becoming a republic last November. To its credit, the British monarchy acknowledged the occasion with poise and humility.

“From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude,” said then-Prince Charles at a ceremony where he celebrated Barbadian independence. “Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.”

It’s too early to tell what sort of role the new king may want to play. Jasanoff called for the British monarchy to do away with the “myths of imperial benevolence” that still suffuse its ceremonies and activities. “While we celebrate the mightiness of Elizabeth II’s allegiance to a life of service,” wrote journalist Tina Brown in her 2022 book, “The Palace Papers,” “we should also acknowledge that an antiquated version of monarchy must now pass into history.”