The Queen is dead. So too, it seems, is compassion. Even before the official announcement of the 96-year-old Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor’s death had come, many of my fellow travelers on the left were circling like vultures. “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying,” tweeted Dr Uju Anya of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “May her pain be excruciating.” The tweet was removed by Twitter for violating its policy.
Tweets like this – and there were so many, though Dr Anya’s has gotten the most attention – belie only a callous disregard for human life and those grieving the passing of the world’s longest-serving head-of-state. More shockingly, though, given the academic and journalistic backgrounds of many of those tweeting such things, it betrays a profound ignorance of both the British constitution and the legacy of Elizabeth II. Far from being a coloniser or perpetrator of genocide, Elizabeth was both a powerless figurehead of a crumbling empire and one of the greatest diplomats of the 20th and 21st centuries.
First, a quick lesson in British constitutionalism for my American compatriots. Like our president, the monarch is the head of state. The head of state in both capacities is largely ceremonial; thinking Joe Biden awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom as akin to the monarch knighting someone is a good analogy. Yes, there is prestige, but the conference grants no real power.
In theory, the monarch’s powers are vast. The queen – now king – can theoretically withhold Royal Assent, which is akin to a presidential veto. Law enforcement and military servicemembers swear allegiance to the Crown, as do members of Parliament. The monarch gives a speech where she – now he – lays out what her – now his – government will do in the coming term. And, of course, it is the monarch who invites the prime minister to-be to form a government in the first place. Before that happens, they are not prime minister.
Of course, the Prime Minister is the one with the democratic mandate as her or his party commands the majority in the House of Commons. No monarch in more than 200 years has appointed a Prime Minister without a democratic mandate – because the UK is a constitutional monarchy which limits the powers of the Crown. The last time Royal Assent was withheld was 1708.
Swearing allegiance to the Crown, as servicemembers and MPs do, is a symbolic act; in constitutional theory, the sovereignty of the nation manifests itself in the Sovereign, thus swearing allegiance to the Crown is swearing allegiance to the nation and not the government or political parties. And that speech the monarch gives from the throne? That’s written by the democratically elected government of the day. The monarch merely speaks the words of the government. They are no indication of the monarch’s own beliefs.
That is because the monarch must remain resolutely apolitical. While there is some question as to whether His Majesty the King will (or even can) live up to that obligation, there is no question as to whether he must. The constitution demands it of him.
Elizabeth II did a fantastic job of remaining utterly and completely apolitical – so much so that when she hoped voters in Scotland would “think very carefully about the future” ahead of the 2014 independence referendum, it caused considerable controversy. Even though it was a fairly innocuous statement (voters should think carefully about the future they want), the outrage it generated illustrates how seriously the British public take the apolitical nature of the Crown.
This (admittedly tedious) constitutional lesson is necessary for Americans or anyone from a country without a Westminster system of government to understand why Dr Anya’s comment was so wide off the mark. Simply put, though she reigned (not ruled, but reigned) for 70 years, none of the major political and foreign policy decisions made by the United Kingdom were hers. They were the product of the government of the day, from Winston Churchill in 1952 to Liz Truss in 2022. Blame them, not Elizabeth.
It is also, I believe, inaccurate to attribute racist and bigoted views to the late queen. While I never met her and have no way of knowing what was in her heart, we do have some indications that this was a woman with a broad mind and open heart. After all, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – who famously fell out with the rest of the Royal family – named their daughter Lilibet after her great-grandmother. If Elizabeth was personally racist, I find it difficult to believe the Duchess – who as a fellow American I am proud to say does not shy away from fighting the good fight – would agree to bestow such a familial honor.
I offer as a further character witness no less than Nelson Mandela. The father of South African democracy shared a warm and congenial relationship with Elizabeth, whom he called by her given name and not a title. He also bestowed a nickname upon her – “Motlalepula,” or “come with the rain” for a torrential downpour which coincided with one of her visits – and the two remained in frequent contact.
Perhaps this warm relationship was, as a Times report from 1986 alleged, because the Queen was unhappy with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to impose sanctions on the apartheid nation. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has even credited her with being a “behind-the-scenes force” in bringing about an end to apartheid in South Africa.
Indeed, as head of state and head of the Commonwealth of Nations, Elizabeth was a frequent and effective proponent of peace, democracy, and human rights. Even Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and soon to be the first republican First Minister, said she is “grateful for Queen Elizabeth’s significant contribution and determined efforts to advancing peace and reconciliation between our two islands.”
It’s with deep regret that I learned of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
The British people will miss the leadership she gave as monarch.
I would like to offer my sincere sympathies and condolences to her children, and wider family as they come to terms with their grief 1/4
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) September 8, 2022
In 2011, she became the first British monarch to visit the independent Republic of Ireland. Her use of Irish language was lauded (the British had famously banned it), and Irish President Michael Higgins called her “a remarkable friend to Ireland.” Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheal Martin has cited her as being crucial to the normalization of relations between the two nations.
Through the Commonwealth, too, the queen advanced diplomacy and proved her mettle as a stateswoman. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari mourned her as “a towering global personality and an outstanding leader.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in an emotional tribute, called her “one of my favorite people in the world” and said “I will miss her so.”
The world, meanwhile, will miss her commitment to democracy and human rights. Whether, in her role as Head of the Commonwealth, helping to suspend Zimbabwe for its brutal dictatorship under Robert Mugabe or addressing the military coup in Pakistan in 1999, she stood firmly on the side of the people she so diligently served, and not just in the United Kingdom.
None of this is to say that Elizabeth II was infallible. She was human, just like you and me. Nor is this an endorsement of monarchy. There is virtue in republicanism, and the role of the Crown should be questioned. It is also not to say that the legacies of colonialism and empire are not violent, ugly, and despicable. They unquestionably are, and those legacies still poison our world today.
What it is to say, though, is that the left has the wrong villain. Elizabeth II served her nation and this world with dignity, quiet composure, and a diligence rarely seen in the annals of history. Far from the power-hungry colonizer some have portrayed her as, the Queen was a diplomat, a humanitarian, and a public servant in the truest sense of the word.
For 70 years she dedicated her life to the people of the United Kingdom and to improving relations and promoting democracy around the world. It is an example we should aspire to emulate, not ridicule and condemn. She has earned her rest. Let us make it a peaceful one – just as she worked tirelessly to do in life.