Not everyone in Britain is mourning the death of the Queen. There is increasing concern about how the monarch's death is being used to repress freedom of expression and protest.
The main thing I remember from Princess Diana’s funeral is how fast the hearse drove.
I was 11, perched on a relative’s shoulders to see over the crowd, expecting the arrival of a solemn procession. But this was the M1 motorway, heading out of London, 100 kilometers still to reach Althorp, Diana’s final resting place. So the motorcade was going full speed — and I only caught a glimpse.
But I also remember all the people lining the M1, and cars stopped on the opposite side of the motorway. The country — and yes, the world — literally came to a standstill. More than 31 million people in the UK watched the Westminster Abbey funeral on television (1 in every 2 people), and an estimated 2.5 billion worldwide.
Fast-forward 25 years. Following British media from afar, you’d be forgiven for thinking the same outpouring of grief is happening for Queen Elizabeth II. Yes, more than a million people have queued up for miles to see the Queen lying in state. Yes, the end of her long reign is cause for plenty of reflection and nostalgia. Yet despite what the blanket media coverage would want you to believe, public sentiment is not as universal this time around. And that's Ok.
British immigrants from Ireland like my parents, for example, adored Diana. The feelings are decidedly more mixed for her former mother-in-law. And this is hardly just an Irish thing. It's a question not only of the Queen's seven-decade reign and the monarchy, but about how this past week has unfolded.
Concerns about free speech
British media coverage of King Charles III’s accession to the throne has been so positive that a YouGov poll showed that the percentage of British people who think he will make a good king leaped from only32% in May of this year to 63% this month.
But British civil liberties groups have expressed growing concern about the repression of free speech. UK police have made a series of arrests against anti-monarchy protesters.
A woman in Edinburgh holding a sign reading “F*ck imperialism, abolish the monarchy” was charged with a breach of the peace. A man faced the same charge after he heckled Prince Andrew as the Queen’s hearse made its way through the Scottish capital.
Someone has just died. But ...
Even more twisted, Paul Powlesland, an attorney, was approached by police officers for holding up a blank piece of paper outside British Parliament. Powlesland explained that if he had written “Not My King” on it, he would be arrested under the Public Order Act.
Recent polls have found that 20-27% of Britons are in favor of abolishing the monarchy. While some might say it’s disrespectful to point that out at this time, the passing of the crown is a valid — if not perfect — time to reflect on the relationship between the monarchy and the public.
Yes, someone has just died. But that doesn’t deflect from the British taxpayer footing a $9 million bill for the Queen’s funeral, while, unlike an ordinary member of the public, Charles will avoid paying a huge amount of inheritance tax on the vast estate he inherits.
King Charles III and his sons at the ceremonial procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall
Distraction from the real issues
Next are those with valid concerns that the Queen’s death is being used to distract from thevery serious everyday issues Britain is facing. More than two million people in the country cannot afford to eat every day. Around 1.3 million people are expected to fall into poverty this winter as energy prices look set to soar by a staggering 27%.
Against this grim backdrop, a BBC news presenter said after the Queen had fallen ill that a speech by the prime minister on energy bills is “insignificant now” given the “gravity of the situation.” Having later apologized, the presenter actually performed a service with the paradoxical phrase that exposed how out of touch the monarchy and its acolytes can be.
A similar controversy arose when a food bank in the UK announced it would close on Monday for a bank holiday that was announced to commemorate the Queen’s funeral. The food bank explained that it was staffed by volunteers, but quickly backtracked after public outcry. Hospitals in the UK have also cancelled thousands of appointments on the day of the Queen’s funeral.
Again, criticism of fears that pressing issues are being ignored is not disrespectful. Such complaints are needed in a healthy democracy.
A poster in Cork, Ireland, protesting the Queen's 2011 visit.
Colonialism: the past is still present
Finally (and it is no small finally) are the people from the former colonies who have been vocal in their criticism of how the Queen’s death is being covered.
The effects of colonialism are not a thing of the past. Nor is it even the distant past. I’m 36 — my Irish grandfather didn’t learn English until the age of 12. His native tongue was literally beaten out of him with corporal punishment. Today, Irish Gaelic, once a national language, is spoken in tiny rural pockets of the country.
The failure to offer a clear historical plea for forgiveness for colonialism is a blot on her legacy.
This is one example of many. Sixty-two countries around the world celebrate independence from Great Britain. In Africa, this often happened as late as the 1950s and 1960s, well into the Queen’s reign. The crimes of colonialism are many, but here are just two in the past century alone: 1.5 million in concentration camps in Kenya in the 1950s. Up to two million dead in the Partition of India in 1947.
The monarchy was not personally responsible for these acts. But it was only too pleased to benefit. The Queen was the world’s largest primary feudal landowner — Charles becomes the legal owner of one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface. This is a direct result of colonialism.
Uneasy lies the head
People affected by colonialism are not mourning Queen Elizabeth’s passing because for them, she was the head of an empire and army that inflicted untold suffering.
She made some notably magnanimous gestures through her reign, including a memorable 2011 visit to my parent's native Ireland. Yet the failure to offer a clear historical plea for forgiveness for all the crimes of colonialism is a blot on her legacy.
So if you can’t criticize the literal head of the empire, at whom can you direct your criticisms?
King Charles III will inherit a very different world than the one that mourned Diana 25 years ago. His monarchy nevertheless continues to enjoy plenty of good will, and there are even some rational arguments for maintaining it —including the economic benefits of the tourism it brings.
Still, as the old expression goes: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Perhaps it would rest easier if the royals encouraged debate and faced up to the past. For the monarchy may be the most complicated jewel in Britain’s history, but freedom of expression is its crowning glory.
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