David Olusoga on the Queen, the Commonwealth and the monarchy’s future – The Guardian

With the passing of the Queen, many think the end is near for the imperial institution she fought so hard for. What realities lie ahead for King Charles III?
Our ancestors were better prepared for moments like this. The inevitable corollary of having witnessed the longest reign in British history is that only a tiny fraction of us have any memory of a monarch’s passing – and such memories that do exist are faded, unreliable, childhood recollections.
The events of the coming days and weeks will be nothing like the royal events we do have experience of – mainly weddings and jubilees. The nation has entered a period of genuine trauma, one that will be punctuated by a series of unfamiliar rituals that, behind closed doors, have been years in the planning.
Whatever your attitude towards hereditary monarchy as an institution, it is simply not possible to be a disinterested bystander. There is no opt-out. Britain is a nation now instantly changed, both in mood and material terms – our national anthem is now suddenly God Save the King and a new head will soon be appearing on our banknotes, coins and stamps.
Although profound to us, the coming changes will be modest in historic terms. When the first Elizabeth died in 1603 the monarch of another nation, King James VI of Scotland, crossed the border and was installed on the throne. Most people regarded that settlement as a blessing, having feared the death of their Virgin Queen might plunge England into chaos or spark a war of succession.
Three-and-a-half centuries later, at the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Labour leader and former prime minster Clement Attlee expressed his hope that what the British people were witnessing, through the thick glass screens of their flickering black-and-white televisions, was “the beginning of a new Elizabethan age no less renowned than the first”. That second Elizabethan age is now over and its conclusion coincides with another of history’s terminus moments.
Many of the most profound changes that are now likely to follow the passing of Queen Elizabeth II will take place beyond our shores and, in many ways, those changes are already under way.
After news of the Queen’s passing was sent to the prime minster by her private secretary, Sir Edward Young, the next step in the protocol dictated that the global response centre at the Foreign Office informed representatives of the other 14 nations of which the Queen is head of state. Next to be informed were the remaining nations of the Commonwealth, the institution that became the great passion of the Queen’s life and reign.
It was always fitting that a monarch for whom the Commonwealth came to mean so much became Queen while overseas, in a British colony. That colony, the Kenya of 1952, was then dominated by around 10,000 Europeans who controlled the government, the economy and the best land, particularly in the so-called “White Highlands” in the centre of the country.
Kenya’s break from the empire, which took place over the years immediately after the Queen’s accession, was to be among the most violent in Britain’s long march from imperial greatness, a stuttering, involuntary journey that began with the independence of India in 1947.
The “wind of change” that eventually brought about the end of British rule in Kenya was already blowing when Elizabeth II came to the throne. Within a decade of her coronation not just Kenya but also Sudan, Malaya, Ghana, Somaliland, Nigeria, Cyprus, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Sierra Leone, Kuwait and Uganda had all achieved independence.
Today, 70 years later, another wind is being felt across the Commonwealth; a mass awakening to the realities and legacies of imperialism and slavery. New scholarship and new debates around history are changing attitudes in many of the 54 “independent and equal nations” of the Commonwealth – countries that are collectively home to 2.5 billion people, most of them not white and 60% of them under the age of 29.
Yet this shift of consciousness, that has long been bubbling under the surface, had not, until recently, been recognised nor understood within the walls of Buckingham Palace. The catastrophic tour of the Caribbean undertaken by the Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge in March of this year starkly revealed the great gulf that exists between the monarchy and many of the people of that Commonwealth – particularly the young.
The tour was described by Palace insiders as a “charm offensive”. By its conclusion, there had been little in the way of charm but no shortage of offence. Historians might well look back at that tour as the first portent of the age in which we now find ourselves; the post-Elizabethan age.
Little about William and Kate’s Caribbean tour – the fruit, it is said, of years of careful preparation – would have felt out of place in any number of the tours made by the late Queen in the first decades of her reign. And therein lies the problem.
While the palace has clung to tradition – the 1960s Land Rover used by the Queen on her trip to Jamaica half a century ago, preserved and polished like a holy relic – the world has changed. That such a tour and the images that flowed from it were thought appropriate, in the age of Black Lives Matter, the felling of colonial-era statues and the Windrush scandal, indicates an institution out of step. However as long as British politicians continue to nurse puerile dreams of Empire 2.0 and “buccaneering Britain”, the monarchy can hardly be singled out for being trapped in their delusions.
In the early 21st century, there are some aspects of the past that can no longer be avoided or papered over, even by monarchs. In the 1950s, little was known and little had been written about Britain’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery. Now that history is out of the bag, taught in schools in Britain and, more importantly, in the Caribbean. What that history reveals is that the monarchy itself, not just the British state, has a moment of reckoning ahead of it as three monarchs – Elizabeth I, Charles II and James II – were directly involved in the trade in enslaved Africans and two others, George III and William IV, defended the system. Another royal tour of the Caribbean and Americas, the site of 13 of the Commonwealth’s 54 nations, feels unimaginable until Britain and its head of state are able to confront these realities. Judging by recent speeches, King Charles III seems to grasp these realities.
The great opportunity that was gifted to the monarchy, and that many hoped would enable it to perform the cultural equivalent of a “great leap forward”, was the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle; a woman whose presence and voice had the potential make the monarchy feel more fit for the 21st century and enable it to look more like modern Britain and the modern Commonwealth. But Meghan was slaughtered by the sharks of the British tabloid press and Harry has become – literally – the prince across the water.
It is perhaps testimony to the enormous respect in which Elizabeth II was held that the coming wave of challenge and reassessment was partially postponed until after her passing. The decision by Barbados, last November, to become a republic is a sign that the pressure for change is now reaching a critical moment. There is no escape from history for either the new monarch or the Commonwealth, the institution the late Queen did so much, for so long, to hold together.
David Olusoga is an Observer columnist, professor of public history at Manchester University and a broadcaster and documentarian
The headline of this article was amended on 11 September 2022 to correct a misspelling of the author’s name.


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