Thoughts concerning the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II

 


In an entirely out-of-character move for me, the death of Her Late Majesty has provoked me to put thoughts down in public using social media. As both a monarchist and – as I often like to say – a “card-carrying Conservative”; it was hardly surprising to me that I would find a lot of the reaction to the tragic but ultimately not unforeseen news distasteful, even as I knew the basic lines of disagreement that would likely arise between myself and less anachronistically-minded friends.

I realise that a lecture-slash-rant on constitutional monarchy is unlikely to be popular or particularly well-viewed. I also realise that, as I have been told and have myself said a number of times today, I am unlikely to change your mind; or vice versa; if you have already decided in principle that monarchism and the whole royal kitchen sink is a regressive and on-the-whole negative institution. I hope only to give an honest and reasonable account of what I find important and effective about monarchy, as well as on to give my personal thoughts regarding some of the other reasons that have been ostensibly behind reactions to Her Majesty’s death.

I would of course be interested and happy to defend my points or debate them further in private with anyone interested – though perhaps an argument might wait for after the mourning period.

A caveat of course would be that one hopes that it can be taken as a foregone conclusion that Elizabeth II was beyond personal reproach – having spent 70 years of her life in singular service to the Crown, never once stepping outside the bounds of her constitutional office, and being on the whole unmarred by the scandals and gross misjudgements that have in the past have haunted (and to this day continue to haunt) other members of the House of Windsor; one can understand viewing Her Majesty as a symbol of institutions that might be found objectionable, but it is difficult to understand finding her personally repugnant.

If your intent is set on disparaging the memory of a 96-year-old woman who volunteered to serve in the Second World War, and who up until three days before her death continued doing a job she never wanted to have; then I think it unlikely that our conversations are to end constructively.

With that being said, I think it wise to divide my thoughts into three sections, for brevity and to ensure I am at least abstractly clear on exactly what it is to which I am responding. These are:

1. Constitutional Monarchy

2. Historical Legacy of Empire

3. Mourning in Malaysia



__. _______

9th September, 2022

 



1. Constitutional Monarchy


It should of course be no surprise why the immediate impulse of a liberal, metropolitan, globalised individual might be to recoil at the idea of hereditary monarchy. The implicit underpinnings of such a system – aristocratic heredity, inequality of opportunity, deference to hierarchy – are in many ways fundamentally incompatible with the egalitarian individualism that defines mainstream sociopolitical thinking.

By this rubric, the mere existence of inequalities is prima facie and fundamentally unjust; much less the implication that there is a moral obligation to defer to anything other than our individual wills. In search of equity, all hierarchy – religious, social, political – has been resigned to the fires of history; no doubt in many instances for the common good.

And yet when I consider that we may have, as Nietzsche put it, killed God; I wonder if in doing so we have not done more harm to ourselves than we could have ever had hoped to inflict upon Him.

We have turned our worship from Heaven to our mirrors and front-facing cameras; and sacrificed much to the Golden Calf of our individual self-aggrandising egotisms. We have through aberrative algorithmic apparatus built entire unique universes for ourselves where we sit, master of all we survey; not only ignorant of, but actively hostile to, anything which might intrude upon our Xanadus of self-image or identity. We have constructed for ourselves a civilisation built upon the Cult of the Self, where even the notion of our own un-centrality is a blasphemy beyond reckoning.

Has this truly been to our benefit?

Have you, embodying Narcissus and gazing endlessly at your own reflection; become a happier, better person? Are you now more at ease with yourself, is the lake of your spirit enriched?

We destroyed deference and reverence, only to find the blind soul of Man crying out to worship, and in the darkness finding only himself.

Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution wrote about the two co-operating parts of any effective Constitution: the Dignified and the Efficient. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch represents the dignified part of the constitution as a symbol and figurehead of authority, nationhood, and the underlying political system – in Bagehot’s words, in the Crown exists the duty to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population”. The unassuming word “symbol” does a great deal of rhetorical lifting in such a description – for what are symbols? They are universal and unifying – a red traffic light is hardly a useful symbol if it does not communicate STOP to every person that encounters it. They are meaningful and necessary – we do not have letters for sounds we do not make.

Monarchy serves in the singular and unenviable role of being the focal point of a nation, not only in its present form but also embodying the continuity and history of a thousand ancestral generations long past. In continuing to exist, it serves its essential purpose – as an axis around which a realm rotates, an anchor to which a people tie themselves amidst the transient fury of the storm. As a symbol, monarchy must be as a great, Albion oak; sinking itself deep into the soil of a nation so as to permeate, embody, and encompass.

One humbly hopes to expand upon Bagehot’s ideas and propose that the dignified part of the constitution too has in itself a dignified and efficient element. The first part of the efficient and practical element is the simple question of stability: barring the stain of a brief 17th-century Cromwellian flirtation with republicanism; His Majesty King Charles III can trace an unbroken line to William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest of 1066. By comparison, the French have had no fewer than five separate Republics since the unfortunate day they executed Louis XVI in 1793, not to mention an imperial Napoleonic monarchy and a restoration of the Bourbons as intermissions between these Republics.

This historic continuity is not a uniquely European or Western phenomenon – the Imperial House of Japan traditionally traces itself to the mythical Emperor Jimmu from 660 BC, and can reliably trace verifiable Emperors back to the 500s AD with Emperor Kinmei. The Royal Houses of Perak, Pahang, and Johor all trace their descent from the House of Malacca; which in turn traces its descent from the Imperial dignity of Srivijaya. Monarchy serves as the links in a chain stretching back into the past; reminding us that former glories are not so far away as they might seem, and that present troubles are as fleeting as all the rest of time.

Beyond this stabilising role, the power symbolism has on the efficient part of the constitution cannot be understated. Monarchy serves as a constitutional agent over and above elected governments – never infringing upon their authority or ability to enact change, but a constant reminder that the government of a nation does not begin and end within a politburo or with the apparatchiks – elected or otherwise.

15 separate Prime Ministers met Her Majesty during the course of Her reign, and 15 Prime Ministers were asked to form Governments in Her name. They were asked – they did not demand, did not claim the right to govern as a spoil of victory – they were asked by the unipolar embodiment of the citizens they were to serve to form a Government. A pleasant fiction, perhaps, but a fiction so endowed with majesty and mystery so as to impose the altogether-too-real seriousness of the task that is given to the leaders of a nation; a reminder that they are ultimately servants of a cause and calling much greater than themselves. Every week, the First Minister of Her Majesty’s Government reported on the goings-on of that Government to Her Majesty – a pseudo-confessional, perhaps, shaming ministers into honesty by demanding either transparency or treasonous deceit at every meeting.

As for the dignified aspect of dignity: because of the expectation and function of constancy, a nation is enabled to place its hopes and fears, dreams and sorrows in the person of the Crown. We rejoice in their celebrations, and mourn at their losses. Even ardent republicans will indulge in gossip and scandal when it escapes the Palace, because there is an instinctive knowing that the public and private lives of these privileged individuals is the truest litmus test for the spirit of the times.

For better or worse, they embody – must embody – the zeitgeist of the nation; a fickle demand indeed, which finds that members of constitutional monarchical institutions are punished severely when they step out of tune to the essential feelings of their subjects. Indeed, it is because of this dignified symbolism that nationalism in extremis could never truly become a large-scale political threat in a mature constitutional monarchy – there can never be a populist politician that embodies the nation more than the crowned head whose entire constitutional role it is to be that embodiment. That is the reason, one must suppose, for the endless hand-shaking and ribbon-cutting – to be everywhere, in the flesh, permeating all at once; to brush against omnipresence.

[A disclaimer in support of secularism: understanding that religious arguments are effectively meaningless to persons that might not have the same beliefs as I; I hope the interested reader nevertheless gives the ideas due consideration. Please, however, feel free to skip to '2. Historical Legacy of Empire' otherwise.]

Indeed, whilst much of the sacrosanct authority and spirituality that defines the British monarchy in particular is oft-unseen in daily life; at the apex of majesty and in the most sacred of dignities lies the necessary truth that the Crown is sanctified by God Himself. The Coronation remains a religious ceremony, in which the Sovereign is bound by holy oath to defend Their subjects and their rights, and to maintain the laws of God. The Sovereign is not invested with civic chains as a Mayor is – they are, to paraphrase the words of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury – “anointed with holy oil, as Kings, Priests, and Prophets were anointed; and as Solomon was anointed King by Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet.”

In this, even the highest of mortals is called upon to consider the magnitude of Their duty, and is forced to reckon with the severity of Their task before Almighty God. It is thus unsurprising that we expect the Sovereign to embody the traits of the Divine – to be everywhere, know everything, feel every feeling, touch every heart. It is why justice and mercy are meted out in the name of the Sovereign. Through the system of monarchy, we strive and struggle to ordain the rude and profane reality of our world in pale and aspirational imitation of the City of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.

In Hell there is Democracy, in Heaven there is a Kingdom.


2. Historical Legacy of Empire


Perhaps the most personally upsetting reactions to the death of the Queen were expressions of celebration at the event, or of using the death to recount colonial and historical atrocities (and, perhaps, implicitly laying some of the blame for those atrocities on the Crown). It would be intellectually inconsistent of me to suggest at this point, after having spilt a not-insignificant amount of ink on the matter, that the Sovereign’s role as a symbol ends at the gates of historical crimes committed in Their name.

Though certainly it is factually difficult to hold any Sovereign truly personally responsible for any action whatsoever taken by their governments (it might interest the reader to learn that the last British monarch who refused Royal Assent to an Act of Parliament was Queen Anne in 1708 – who did so only on the advice of her ministers); their role as a unifying symbol of State, and therefore historically also of Empire, means that it is entirely understandable that some of the emotional weight of those historical atrocities be foisted upon them.

It would be ignorant and insensitive to in any way make light of the tragic and horrendous violence inflicted by agents of the British Empire on its supposed subjects throughout history. Suffering abounded throughout the Empire from the Boer concentration camps to the Mau Mau uprising; across the subcontinent in Amritsar, through famine, and during the Partition. Yet, equally intellectually dishonest would be to posit that any of these or other actions of the Empire were in any way uniquely malicious or evil.

Contemporary Imperial powers, European and otherwise, engaged in similar mass acts of state-sanctioned violence; and large-scale polities throughout history have rarely shied away from the application of force for geopolitical goals. In 88 BC, King Mithridates murdered over 80,000 Italics across Asia Minor during the Asiatic Vespers. To suggest that Europe was uniquely bloodthirsty or violent during the Age of Colonialism appears in a twisted way to underestimate the mental capacities of non-Europeans throughout history.

A lust for conquest and subjugation did not suddenly appear in Europe as a result of the Enlightenment or Industrialisation – these desires sit deep within the soul of our species, impossible to excise. Rarely has imagination been a limiting factor on the expression of human depravity.

The scale of violence employable by any polity has always been a function of the technological advancement available to that polity – genocide and massacre came as freely from the barrels of Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles as they did from the recurve bows of hordes of Mongol warriors astride war stallions. The unequal pendulum of history swung in Europe’s favour during that critical time, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking ourselves or our ancestors saints – had the roles been reversed, had steam engines poured first out of China as opposed to Britain, history might well have looked surpassingly different.

In an ideal world, one would of course wish that no horrors of any scale had ever been inflicted by man upon man, at any time in history. I wish fervently that the Bengal Famines had never happened as earnestly as I wish that the Bolsheviks had not shot the Tsar and his children, that Chairman Mao had not starved 45 million Chinese in the Great Leap Forward, and that Rome had not burned and salted Carthage.

If we are to look for a reason for why these atrocities occur, it must be simply that man is, in essence, fundamentally atrocious.

So are we destined to be forever bitter, the runners-up of history? Might we find nothing amidst the rapid advancement of our one-time conquerors to cherish as our unwilling inheritance? Perhaps we might consider, in no particular order: constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, and an independent & secular judiciary.

Kemal Atatürk once said: “There may be a great many countries in the world, but there is only one Civilisation, and if a nation is to achieve progress, she must be a part of this Civilisation”. He recognised that the Civilisation that Turkey wished to join – the Civilisation of rules-based order, of private property, of individual rights and liberties – was not a uniquely Western construct. The West had been fortunate enough to be the first to discover this blessed order, but it did not belong to them any more than language, or mathematics, or music.

And yet, if the Sovereign must be a symbol of the horrendous-but-not-unique evils done in Their names; then surely They must also be a beacon of any praiseworthy legacies. But recognition of such legacies would implicitly suggest moral greyness, and destroy any claims antagonistic parties might have to absolute purity of righteousness.

This ideological zealotry, as with many other things, can only be seen as another unfortunate outcome of the worship of the self.

It comes then as no surprise that the death of Her Majesty would be and has been callously celebrated by persons who have made it their philosophical purpose to denigrate a Civilisation which they self-limitingly misidentify as Western, and therefore censured beyond consideration.

To the once-colonised peoples of the world, I ask: are we forever to be victims of the oppression of our forefathers? Are we nothing more than the consequentialist results of fate, outcroppings of the actions of old, dead white men? And if today we find ourselves amidst corruption and prejudice and misrule, can we be truly honest in saying that this is all the legacy of our imperial oppression; or must we at a certain point own our histories, actions, and destinies?

There must be a point at which we throw off the historical, arrogant presumptions of our own cultural infantilism that were used by the worst aspects of Empire to subjugate our peoples. But instead, in almost lockstep uniformity across the post-colonial world; the imperfections of the legacies with which we were left became not projects for reconciliation and reform, but instead leveraged and utilised to further oppress and divide – this time instead with a familiar, resentful, native politicisation.

Whilst no doubt true that history did not deal us the grandest of hands; we have had every opportunity since to change the rules by which the game is played. Instead, we languish in post-colonial resentment, jealously guarding the creaking remains of the systems we were left with that still work; and even more jealously guarding the fundamentally flawed aspects of those systems which, whilst doubtless were ill-thought and misguided in the 1930s, are certainly beyond comprehension and reason in the 2020s.

Indeed it remains to me to be seen whether, in Malaysia in particular, the post-colonial political settlement has to any extent been more effective at protecting the rights of ethnic minorities in the country. It is a matter of historical fact that the extension of Malayan citizenship to non-Malays under the Malayan Union was the subject of a significant amount of controversy and political agitation pre-Merdeka. This political whetstone has hung heavy around the necks of four generations of post-Merdeka Malaysians; and even today there continue insinuations that the citizenship which is ours by right of birth is somehow a privilege for which we must be eternally and generationally grateful, and accordingly humbly accept a subsidiary place in what might be uncharitably described as a neo-apartheid regime.

It is of course darkly amusing to recount that, despite protestations from both the Tunku and Their Highnesses the Malay Rulers to ensure that all citizens of a new Federation would receive equal rights and treatment irrespective of ethnic backgrounds; the drafters of the Reid Commission, doubtless politically sensitive to the sentiments post-collapse of the Malayan Union, included affirmative action policies in drafting the Malayan Constitution spurred on by pressure from proto-ketuanan nationalist groups. What might have been a bumbling, well-intentioned, poorly-executed mistake by an underinformed colonial authority has since been co-opted as the de facto political superweapon in Malaysian politics, deployed and brandished with zeal as a justification for civil oppression.



3. Mourning in Malaysia


In this last section, which should be significantly shorter and more personal than the preceding two; I should seek to address the question that is doubtless present to some degree or another: I am not a British subject, and so why did I bear affection for Her Majesty; and more importantly for the system that she represented? I return, as I suppose all persons who wish to pull meaning from the word-filled haze of the mind must do, to the universality of symbols.

If, as I have tried to argue, Her Majesty was – and the Crown is – a symbol of dignified, self-effacing, Godfearing service; of obsequiousness and probity; of the majesty and history and continuity and triumph of all the values of universal Civilisation; then I do not see under what circumstance we might imagine that these qualities are admirable only to the British. If She represented all these things, which I thoroughly and earnestly believe She did, then I think it a great loss to us all that that simple, single soul has had its light winked out on this Earth.

The three years I spent in London, and my subsequent visits back, have proved to be a source of unending joyful memories for reasons beyond recounting. But, perhaps to tempt the limits of lexicography, I would recount that one of those reasons was that at no point during my time in England have I ever felt that my speech warranted censoring, or that my thoughts were proscribed – freedoms that the Crown enshrined and embodied, and freedoms which I hope will be enjoyed by those of my readers who possess them with much great and especial knowledge of their rarity and sanctity. Indeed, it was that same freedom, so jealously preserved, that enabled my dear revolutionary friends at university to protest against the Crown that was guardian of their rights.

So we mourn Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, who as a paschal lamb was sacrificed at the altar of the Crown for all Her subjects that she might serve a role she never wanted; and we mourn Her Majesty the Queen as we might mourn the loss of the sky or the sun – a steadfast constant that, in all our grasping mortal arrogance, we never conceived of having to live without.


And thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life and into His Divine Mercy the Most High, Most Mighty, and Most Excellent Monarch; our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second of blessed memory.




Behold! I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’

Where, O death, is thy sting? Where, O grave, is thy victory?

-          1 Corinthians 15:51-55


 


God Save the King

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