Opinion: The queen’s legacy and the fate of the British monarchy

People walk past a flag depicting the late Queen Elizabeth II during the Lying-in State, in Westminster Hall in London, Thursday, Sept. 15.

People walk past a flag depicting the late Queen Elizabeth II during the Lying-in State, in Westminster Hall in London, Thursday, Sept. 15.

Associated Press

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has given rise to a tremendous amount of uncritical adulation of this monarch among politicians, royal historians and media pundits alike. For instance, President Biden stated that Queen Elizabeth “was more than a monarch and that she defined an era.” One historian reminded us that she “became the most visible and well-traveled monarch in history” and that “her enthusiasm for horse-racing, corgis and spending time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren is well known.”

Other historians have observed that she provided a steadying presence and source of comfort during her 70 years on the throne in a world that is constantly changing. Media anchors and pundits on CNN, MSNBC and FOX have extolled her sense of humor and ability to stay above the fray of politics while these networks have provided continuous coverage of every memorial service, procession and royal ceremony since the queen’s passing on Sept. 8.

Yet for all the glorification of Queen Elizabeth II to which we are now being subjected, we should not forget that she presided for 70 years over the remnants of a colonial empire (e.g., in Africa and the Caribbean), an institution that has enriched itself through the oppression of indigenous populations, theft of natural resources, and violence.

Did Queen Elizabeth ever speak out against these historical injustices? Did she raise her voice against apartheid in South Africa during the decades in the 20th century in which Nelson Mandela was wrongly imprisoned and she was queen of England? Did the queen ever express concerns about the plight of indigenous people in Australia or Canada, which like South Africa, are among the countries in the commonwealth under her reign?

To date, I have not found any historical evidence that she publicly voiced concerns for these historical injustices or for other crimes in which the United Kingdom is implicated. Indeed, many royal historians have pointed out that she rarely, if ever, ventured her personal opinions about the social and political controversies of her time.

Thus, despite the showering of praise we are witnessing in the media, an honest assessment of Queen Elizabeth II might conclude that her legacy is twofold: her longevity as a monarch and her smallness, small not so much in stature as in spirit, charisma and vision. Queen Elizabeth lacked that type of spirit that knows when it is necessary to speak out against injustices in her own country and the wider global community. She could never muster enough charisma to participate in any of the contentious debates during the final years of her life like the Brexit decision and Scottish independence. And, perhaps most regrettably, she lacked the vision to realize that monarchies are a relic of another millennium, ones that have no legitimacy and little significance in the democracies of the 21st century.

As for the British monarchy, I remain skeptical about its demise in the near future, despite the passing of its longest-serving sovereign. Polls continue to show that, in the third decade of the 21st century, a majority of Brits still support the monarchy. Yet even more troubling than the way in which it is viewed among the citizens of Great Britain is how the mainstream media has chosen to cover and gloat over this archaic institution. Even networks such as MSNBC and CNN, which are typically seen as averse to any kind of privilege and discrimination, have elected to buy in to the widespread adulation of the British monarchy.

Some of the same pundits and journalists who are quick to decry the problems with meritocracy, a practice that is prevalent in college admissions in the United States, have chosen to say nothing about the hereditary privilege that undergirds the institution of monarchy. So let’s be clear about what hereditary privilege entails. Hereditary privilege, which queens, kings, princesses and princes enjoy, is not based on any effort exerted or difficult task that has been undertaken. Nor does this privilege come from a talent that one possesses or an accomplishment that has been realized. No, hereditary privilege comes from simply having been born into a specific lineage and being a descendant of a past monarch.

Supporting the maintenance of a monarchy, in short, amounts to endorsing the worst type of privilege, a type of benefit that is unearned, accountable to no one and potentially limitless. Perhaps the death of their longest-serving monarch can move more Brits to question this outdated, undemocratic institution. Perhaps they can even imagine a future Commonwealth devoid of kings, queens, and royal splendor, a future that acknowledges the role that the monarchy played in the history of Great Britain yet recognizes the need to move away from it.

Mordechai Gordon is a professor of education at Quinnipiac University.