Last week, Queen Elizabeth II of England passed away at age 96, sparking fierce debate about the controversial, bloody and colonial history of the monarchy, specifically concerning the methods by which the British monarchy makes money from taxpayers and from its legacy of colonialism. However, the death of the longest reigning monarch in British history brings about a question of legacy and change that, in this writer's opinion, has flown under the radar because of the more salacious debates that have risen to the surface.
The queen lived from World War II to the aftermath of Brexit; she oversaw the western civil rights movement, the entirety of the Cold War and watched Alan Turing’s Enigma machine evolve into the iPhone. Despite this massive societal change, she left behind a legacy of quiet control and non-controversiality, letting the rest of her family mire itself in scandal and controversy while she watched her active role in constitutional government diminish. The question remains, though, if a reigning monarch could — or even should — once again exert their extensive public influence.
I consulted Dr. Michael A. Genovese, a professor of political science and international relations as well as the president of the Global Policy Institute here at LMU, to discuss the nature of the royal family as a national symbol, Queen Elizabeth’s unique brand of political influence and how that will change with King Charles III.
“We [Americans] like to brag about how we don't have, or need [a monarch]. They have one for cultural and historical reasons. We don't have one for historical reasons. They've had one for hundreds of years [...], and it serves an important purpose. It tends to serve as their number one symbol of national unity, as you can see from watching TV in the past few days.”
The basis of Genovese’s explanation was that the criticisms of the monarchy’s legacy are entirely valid, and to Americans, the monarchy feels like an antiquated institution because it’s so fundamentally opposed to our own birth as a nation. However, he compared the bloodsoaked past of the British Empire tainting their national symbol to the “dual original sins of racism against African American slaves and Native American populations” in U.S. history. This legacy seeps into our equivalent national symbols, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
However, Queen Elizabeth’s reign as the very essence of Britain was defined by a very different quality, one that Genovese described as a kind of political savvy that let her remain entirely apolitical. Politico recently wrote about how the queen was deified even in America for her “marshmallow diplomacy,” with absurdly high approval ratings across the political spectrum because of her insistence on staying away from any statements or actions that could be construed as vaguely political.
In the queen's view, the image of the monarchy and the unity that the symbol promotes had to go untarnished by controversy — you won’t recall the queen declaring her support for the Civil Rights Movement nor can you dredge up her admonishment of it.
In that sense, we can’t ever know what impact the queen had on the public policy and actions of the British Government during her reign — she has a private audience with the prime minister whenever she demands it, after all. The black box of government influence will always remain a mystery to observers of British history. As Genovese put it, “No one knows what goes on in those private meetings. Did the queen bend the ear of Margaret Thatcher and say ‘you've got to stop pulling this’? Or did she simply say ‘oh, hello, let's have some tea?'”
In a Politico Op-Ed this week, Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, called the queen “the number one symbol of white supremacy,” because it was in her name and under her banner that Britain committed atrocities in Kenya and Nigeria. In his view, mourning for the queen is an endorsement of the system she represented because the person she was is irrelevant to the scale of her legacy and influence as an institution. It’s largely irrelevant, then, if she had direct involvement with the decision making for actions like this because it was her name and image branded into those victimized by the wheels of colonialism, even if the last vestiges of the British Empire disappeared under her reign.
King Charles III is the latest in a long lineage to inherit this sordid history, now charged with the responsibility of deciding whether he, too, will follow the path of the silent symbol that his mother pioneered or if his controversial standing in the public eye will let him remain unbothered by the interference of public opinion. This brings up the very core of his efforts when he was the Prince of Wales – his work as a Climate Change activist.
For nearly a half century, Charles has attended global conferences and advocated for climate change policy across sectors, including several of his own charities and businesses in that realm. BBC this week reported that while his total attention to said efforts may decrease, the King doesn’t plan to back off on his advocacy for these topics, despite their political quagmire. The opportunity this kind of exposure and support could offer the climate movement is completely unparalleled and could transform the landscape of the issue entirely.
For a better part of a century, Elizabeth presided over the dismantling of the British Empire, cementing the new standard for how a monarch interacts with the government and their subjects. She transformed her position into that of a figurehead, and established her international influence as the diplomatic, apolitical, uncontroversial mouthpiece of Britain. Her son now has the opportunity to shift this ruling paradigm — and if he can leverage the nature of his position to push the world away from climate inaction, it’ll be more than worth it.
This is the opinion of Arsh Goyal, a sophomore economics major from Dublin, Calif. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow and tweet comments to @LALoyolan on Twitter, and like the Loyolan on Facebook.