Home Editorials Passing of the British Empire

Passing of the British Empire

by Jesse Jackson
Rev. Jesse Jackson

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – Queen Elizabeth II’s death at 96 has occasioned an outpouring of tributes and grieving across the world. Heads of state, including Joe Biden, mourn her passing. Common citizens have built mountains of flowers at her gate. The British football league even postponed its games for a weekend in her honor.

Crowned queen in 1953 at age 25 in the wake of World War II, Queen Elizabeth II served as the face of the British Empire, the head of not just a nation but a global empire which devolved into a global commonwealth. From her Corgi dogs to her wardrobe choices to the family squabbles and scandals, Queen Elizabeth was a fixture, a symbol of stability in times of trouble.

Her commitment to her duties (however ceremonial) was praiseworthy. As queen in Britain, her political opinions and preferences are by tradition masked, but peoples across the world saw her as a source of solace and of concern. Even the reports of the racial tensions within the royal family did not disrupt that image.

Yet while we mourn the passing of the queen, we should not mourn, as Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff has written, the passing of the British Empire.

“The sun never sets on the British Empire” was once literally true. At its height in the early 1900s, the tiny British island ruled over 412 million people, nearly one-fourth of the world’s population at the time, and over 13.7 million square miles of territory, nearly one-fourth of the world’s territory.

Imperial nostalgia paints this as a picture of the ‘White man’s burden,’ the civilizing force of Britain benignly ruling over its subjects. In fact, 65 countries have to date claimed independence from Britain—and many of these only after brutal resistance from the British. The first of the many revolutions against the empire was that of the American colonies. Our Declaration of Independence declared independence from the British crown, after detailing “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” Our independence was achieved only by force of arms.

Britain’s empire included many settler nations (like South Africa and Australia) that savaged indigenous populations to take their lands, their minerals and jewels, and too often their people.

In Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Yemen, Nigeria, Ireland and more, popular independence movements were met with violent suppression, mass arrests and often torture. In many cases, Britain invented the tactics that Americans grew to know from counter-insurgency campaigns to detention camps, to systematic torture.

Even with the queen presiding over the Commonwealth of Nations, 56 states largely former territories of the British Empire, a slow reckoning of this past has begun. In 2013, Kenyan victims of torture won a lawsuit providing them with damages. In 2019, survivors from Cyprus achieved the same. Calls for reparations or for at least official investigation and apology for the horrors abound.

Just as U.S. school boards and legislatures struggle with how to deal with its legacy of slavery (in textbooks, in official statutes, in public monuments) so too Britain now wrestles with how to think about and teach its history. Just as there has been a fierce reaction here, so too in Britain, xenophobes demand a continued whitewashing of the history of violence, oppression and economic exploitation.

In fact, coming to grips with the reality of the past is part and partial of changing to meet the challenges of the modern day. The Britain that once ruled much of the world now struggles to rule itself. With Brexit, it has left the European Union. With the growing movement toward Scottish independence, it faces dissolution within. It is heading into the worst economic crisis in decades—even as inequality reaches ever more obscene extremes, yet London, its financial center, looks abroad not at home for its investments. Demagogues call upon the mythic past while failing to deal with the current grim realities. What is needed is a politics that brings people together in a national project of renewal. Imperial nostalgia, global adventure, the dominance of the financial elite stand in the way.

Queen Elizabeth II garners praise for her grace, her discipline, her commitment. Her passing should mark not only the end of an age, but the end of a delusion. Britain will not be made great again by looking backward, but only by understanding the reality of its past, and creating a new future.

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