There’s no doubt that Queen Elizabeth II was beloved. From the flowers left outside royal sites across the UK, to the hundreds of tents pitched outside Buckingham Palace ahead of her funeral procession, to the intricate sand art tributes made on beaches around the world (see one such work here), it’s clear that the world is trying to express a profound grief in the wake of her loss.
Grief, however, is complex. This is especially true when it involves a world leader, who exists both as an individual and– more dubiously– as a symbol. In this period of mourning, perhaps our greatest challenge is to separate the Queen’s individual good works from the problematic legacy she represents.
Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on June 2nd, 1953, during an uncertain moment in British history. The nation was still recovering from the trauma of World War II, rebuilding its destroyed cities and facing an extended shortage of labor and goods. Its overseas colonies, too, were on the decline. India had gained sovereignty in 1947, and independence movements were on the rise across British colonies in Africa. Her Royal Highness had inherited the British Empire while it was rapidly on its way to becoming obsolete. Not only were there significant external pressures to contend with, but themonarchy itself had recently undergone a tumultuous period, when Edward VIII abdicated from the throne in 1936. Suddenly the former queen’s father had become king and had had to regain public trust by acting as a stable leader. And upon his death and her coronation, Queen Elizabeth inherited this responsibility for maintaining public trust. In the twin shadows of abdication and war, she felt the country’s need for stability. Addressing the Commonwealth in her Coronation speech, she answered that need with a promise: “Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
She fulfilled that promise by being a stable presence over the next seventy years. In that time, she traveled widely, visiting six continents and a total of 110 countries. Always with the goal of strengthening the Commonwealth, she advocated for transnational cooperation and mutual aid.
According to the Queen, the greatest problem in the world was the gap between rich and poor countries. “We shall not begin to close this gap until we hear less about nationalism and more about interdependence,” she would declare in her 1983 Christmas broadcast, going on to detail her vision of increased investment in the developing world, in which new technology would create jobs, provide products to be bought by richer countries and ultimately boost the economies of poorer countries. It was a simple wish– but at the time her remarks met with backlash from politicians, who equated her lack of nationalism with a lack of national pride. The politician Enoch Powell criticized how the Queen seemed to have “the interests and affairs of other countries in other continents as much or more at heart than those of her own people.”
The reality was that the Queen’s travels had made her more diplomatic and culturally sensible than her critics. They had also brought her face-to-face with poverty and equity issues, for which she supported solutions. The Queen was patron of over 600 charities, including many that dealt with public service and civic issues. In her lifetime she gave more to charity than any other monarch in history, raising over $2 billion. Combine this extraordinary feat with the Queen’s diplomatic views, dignified morality and familiar presence, and it isn’t hard to see why there have been so many public outpourings of grief in the days since her death. Yet even now, the Queen’s legacy is not without controversy. Because she was such a powerful figure, and at the same time because that power was more symbolic than it had been with any of her predecessors, her legacy– both the choices that she did make, and the choices that she didn’t make– is uniquely complex.
For many people in the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II’s death has been a remainder of the colonization that affected their countries up through the present day. The most pertinent criticism is not towards actions that Her Royal Highness took, but rather at important actions she did not take. Although she became queen when the British Empire was already in decline, and she saw the unchallenged transition of many former colonies into sovereign nations, many have voiced their disappointment that the Queen did not acknowledge her forebears’ crime of colonization more vocally in theyears following or compensate for it in a more public manner. For these countries, the Queen’s death leaves a lack of closure. In light of this, the conversation has begun shifting to how we can best honor someone even if we don’t support everything that they stood for.
In the Queen’s case, there is a fine but important line between her symbolic presence and her individual life. Symbolically, as heir to the former British Empire, she inevitably represented oppression. But as an individual, she envisioned a Commonwealth that was united by interdependent bonds and marked by equality; and to that end, she championed causes that promoted civic and economic growth in many nations.
Though the Queen’s death is a turning point in history, the work she left behind is far from over. There are the atrocities of the past which continue to require reparations, and there are hopes of a brighter future for all, which continue to require commitment and good faith. As we adjust to this new life without the Queen’s familiar guidance, we would do best to remember her as someone who was born into a problematic system but was able to work within it to move us a step closer to global equity.
That is a mission we can all get behind.