The drumbeat of history sounds for the Monarchy

Oct 2, 2022
A splash of water creates a crown reflecting the British flag .
Image: iStock

Australia is at an inflection point. The illusion of Pax Britannia is just that. The time for a historical reckoning has arrived. The gruesome facts of colonial violence and the heroism of past and ongoing Indigenous resistance can no longer be denied.

The funeral, 19th September 2022.

It’s only over a week or so since the Queen was laid to rest. But the dust hasn’t quite settled. Nor will it. Not for a while. There are too many lingering questions around the meaning of the monarchy. In a myriad of ways, the Queen’s funeral, and the great imperial pageantry that accompanied it, has unwittingly become an inflection point for a long overdue reckoning with power and privilege. Not so much woke as blazing scrutiny. Still, I’m sure you’ll agree: the send-off was a mind-blowing spectacle, with enough stony gravatas to sink a battleship.

Much to my own amazement, I spent four dizzying hours glued to the BBC’s coverage, beamed through the hushed-tones of Aunty. At one point I asked my partner if a god was being laid to rest. Might as well be, she opined. A friend of mine in southern England texted me with the irreverent observation that the Queen was in fact still alive and was last seen in Patagonia alongside Elvis and Charlie Watts.

But as I watched the procession wind its way through royalist London, I found myself being deeply moved. Even for a die-hard republican like me, the sight of HM’s diminutive casket draped with the Royal Standard flag aroused feelings that defied all logic. Let’s face it, the whole shebang was designed to elicit just this.

A painstakingly choreographed event, meticulously planned over the past thirty years, the Queen’s funeral was an echo of the great Raj pageants, designed to shore up the idea of omnipotent British power, which back then, as now, was and remains a giant illusion.

But no matter. This was imperial melodrama and grandeur at their most stirring. Such was the saturation coverage on free-to-air channels in colony Australia that any hint of criticism was likely to be greeted with a severe tongue lashing. And so it proved when One Nation senator Pauline Hanson told the Greens deputy leader, Mereen Faruqi, to “piss off back to Pakistan” in response to the latter’s depiction of the Queen as the symbolic head of a racist empire. Adam Bandt, the Greens leader, was also chastised when he touched on the heretical idea of a republic.

For most of Australia’s First Nations people – those with the most visceral experience of racist violence – it was a deeply troubling day. While mindful of the solemnity of the occasion, they also pointed to the awkward fact that the royal lineage has presided over enslavement, colonisation and imperial wars of conquest – including the violent colonisation of Australia. The Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Price, however, had a different take on such matters. She conjured the rather perplexing observation that Indigenous people were lucky: apparently, it could have been worse under less tolerant and reasonable colonisers. Suffice to say, such historical revisionism was greeted with consternation in many quarters. What, one wonders, could be worse than attempted genocide?

But this was not a day for such debates. The heart-synchronised drum beat rolled on remorselessly, drowning out criticism, as the Queen was eventually interned, and the Prince of Wales installed as the new King on the block.

The day after the coverage I did a sort of off-the-cuff stocktake of my friends’ feelings on the past twenty-four hours. Most, like yours truly, were moved at a very human level – the Queen after all, was a mother and grandmother, and she did devote herself wholeheartedly to the ‘service’ of her country.

But, they added, she also represented inherited wealth, class power and privilege, military domination, violent overthrow and dispossession. She may not have been directly responsible for all this – though the cruel and violent suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya and the illegal invasion of Iraq did happen under her watch. It’s hard, as another friend noted, to disentangle various parts of the ruling establishment from each other. All we can do is point out what actually occurs under the sanction of any given system.

One friend, somewhat more predisposed to the idea of royalty, suggested that the monarchy had a sort of bonding effect, bringing together otherwise disparate groups under the umbrella of national unity, while another said that the Queen had been a stabilising influence especially in a secular and atomised era. I couldn’t buy any of this. My concerns over the monarchy are in fact not directed at the monarchy per se, but rather at the anti-democratic ideas of intergenerational wealth, class privilege and a general revulsion of all that was done under the purview of Pax Britannia.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the inglorious pageant was the celebration of a fading empire set against today’s reality of a neutered state. Old Blighty is going through tough times right now, care of Brexit, galloping inflation and now the deranged tax cuts offered up by new PM, Liz Truss who is, without question, part of the Rule Britannia brigade. Yet despite the Tories desperate efforts to return Britain to its former glory, there’s little chance of resuscitating the imperial beast. No; what remains are the gruesome reminders of a tragic history which most royalists would prefer us to forget.

It’s this juxtaposition of myth and reality that so jarred on the day of days. And no amount of pomp and circumstance could conceal widespread unease. We were told repeatedly of HM’s selfless devotion to duty, but this was obligation anchored in the darkest corners of British history. The funeral was, in the crudest sense, more about the attempted reproduction of power than the passing of a single regal dignitary. I watched the heads of Commonwealth nations filing into Westminster Abbey only to wonder how long it would be before their countries, like Jamaica and Barbados, would seek some form of recompense for past wrongs.

Yes, we’re at an inflection point. The illusion of Pax Britannia is just that. The time for a historical reckoning has arrived. Truth told; it’s been there for centuries. The gruesome facts of colonial violence and the heroism of past and ongoing Indigenous resistance can no longer be denied. The Voice to Parliament, based on one of the most important and moving documents of recent times, the Uluru Statement of the Heart, has far more historical resistance than any number of drumbeats.

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