By Rajan Philips –
Queen Elizabeth passed away late afternoon on Thursday, two days after giving her traditional audience to Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss. Church bells tolled throughout the country for Britain’s longest serving monarch. Starting with Sir Winston Churchill in 1952 to Liz Truss last week, the Queen has gone through 15 British Prime Ministers, 11 Tories and four Labour PMs in her 70 years as Monarch. Five of them were born after she became Queen. The Queen was witness to the episcopates of seven Archbishops of Canterbury, and there were as many Popes in the Vatican during her reign. For good measure, she has also seen a dozen US Presidents and half a dozen Soviet chiefs come and go. Stalin was alive when she became Queen and Mao was already at the helm in China, but it would be two years before he would also become the country’s formal Head of State.
A Perfect Monarch
In her long reign as British monarch, Queen Elizabeth did not quite preside over the liquidation of the British Empire, but she did play a guiding role in its transition from Empire to Commonwealth. In Britain’s former colonies, her presence helped soften the legacies of colonial rule and facilitated reasonably cordial relations between the old centre and new polities. In his finest hour, Jawaharlal Nehru, as recorded by Canada’s Lester Pearson, found a way to reconcile India becoming a republic and being the largest member of the Commonwealth under the patronage of the Queen. 36 of the 56 Commonwealth member countries are republics. As the ceremonial Head of the Commonwealth, majority of whom are republics, Queen Elizabeth took on the symbolic role of a ‘republican monarch.’
Unlike India, Sri Lanka took its time, 24 years, to become a republic. This had nothing to do with the British monarch or the British parliament, but everything to do with Sri Lanka’s state and government leaders. The Left’s assailment that the 1948 independence was a fake independence was technically misplaced. The LSSP’s Leslie Goonewardene acknowledged as much in his updated version of his Short History (of the LSSP). No one in Westminster broke into a sweat when Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972. Ten years later there were inconsequential rumblings in the British parliament over Canada’s repatriation of its constitution in 1982.
Within Britain the Queen fulfilled to perfection the monarch’s role in the British parliamentary system operating without a written constitution. In his 19th century classic, The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot described it as the sovereign’s three rights – “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” What Bagehot said of Queen Victoria could be said of Queen Elizabeth as well: “The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English government would fail and pass away.” In the context of 20th century postwar politics, Sir Ivor Jennings said it from the people’s standpoint – that the monarchy gives people the room to “damn the government and cheer the Queen.”
The way in which she applied her dignified capacity to the new British reality of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English nationalisms was truly remarkable. She was a committed catalyst for the Good Friday agreement, and won over Irish hearts by publicly appreciating their aspirations. With no sign of any rancour over the IRA’s killing of Lord Mountbatten, her kinsman and early mentor, Queen Elizabeth shook hands with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, a former IRA leader at an event in Belfast. Both the Scottish and Welsh leaders have spoken to the love, respect and admiration the Queen enjoyed among their respective peoples.
The Queen’s death comes at a time when the British people are all set to damn the central government and will miss their Queen to give them some cheer. The new King, Charles III, will be tested to his limits. The old debate over the need for the monarchy might get rekindled sooner or later. The late Queen saw 15 Prime Ministers over 70 years, four of them over the last six years, and all Tories. The ghost of Brexit is haunting Britain and Boris Johnson’s boast that Britain will have its Brexit cake and eat it too has left Britain baked and burnt. Another Scottish referendum is unavoidable.
The people are facing a crushing cost-of-living crisis, an economy on recessionary tracks, and collapsing public services especially in the health sector. And they have a new Prime Minister with a new cabinet who will have to navigate through a divided Conservative Party and govern a country that is fast turning against the Tories. The Conservates won a landslide victory in December 2019, but in less than three years they have managed to turn the country against them. The Tories just went through the divisive process of electing a new Party leader and PM after Boris Johnson was forced to resign over the ‘Partygate’ scandal involving staff drinking parties at 10 Downing Street in breach of national Covid-19 regulations.
The runoff election pitted two unconventional candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Sunak is an upper class British Conservative born in England to immigrant parents of Indian origin from East Africa and married to the daughter of a billionaire Indian businessman. Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer Under Boris Johnson, but led the cabinet revolt against the PM over Partygate triggering Johnson’s expulsion. Liz Truss is the daughter of English middle-class parents who were strong Labour supporters, a Lib-Dem as a student at Oxford, and ultimately a Tory politician. She was Johnson’s Foreign Minister and remained loyal to him in the Partygate controversy.
Even though Sunak was the number one pick among Tory MPs in parliament, he was not expected to win in the final runoff vote by all the Conservative Party members in the country. But Sunak performed better than predictions, winning 60,399 votes (43%) to Truss’s 81,326 votes (57%). Truss’s winning vote share is nowhere near Boris Johnson’s 66% in 2019, or David Cameron’s 68% in 2005. The main reason for Sunak’s defeat was the internal campaign against him by Boris Johnson’s loyalists who were furious with Sunak for resigning from cabinet and triggering Johnson’s expulsion.
Two weeks before the Tory vote and Sunak’s defeat, Shashi Tharoor, one of India’s more prominent intellectual politicians, wrote an article titled, “Britain not ready for brown PM.” May be, not till India is ready for an Indian Muslim PM. Strangely, Tharoor missed the obvious rejoinder. In fairness, despite the title Tharoor acknowledges in his article that Britain is now a far more open and plural society than it ever was, and picked on “the xenophobia with which some Indians reacted to the prospect of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi becoming our prime minister in 2004.” But no mention of the official aversion towards Muslims in Modi’s India. After 75 years, the official secularism that was launched in India at independence has many discontents and little contentment.
In Britain, even though the first brown male contender to be PM lost, the country’s third white female Prime Minister is creating a rainbow cabinet of her own. For the first time since cabinet government began in Britain, a white man will not be holding any of the three most powerful cabinet posts – chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary and foreign secretary. Kwasi Kwarteng, another upper-class Conservative, born to immigrant parents from Ghana, becomes Britain’s first Black Chancellor of the Exchequer after two brown men had come and gone under Johnson. Suella Braverman, whose parents came from Kenya and Mauritius, is the new Home Secretary, and James Cleverly, whose mother migrated from Sierra Leone, is Britain’s first non-white Foreign Secretary.
There are also other women and men of colour who have been appointed as Ministers. South Asian MPs may not seem to have fared as well as they did under Boris Johnson, although Ranil Jayawardane, son of an immigrant Sinhalese father and Indian mother, has been appointed as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Prominent Tories of South Asian origin in the Johnson cabinet, besides Rishi Sunak, and including Priti Patel (Home Secretary) who resigned and Sajid Javid (of Pakistani origin and Sunak’s predecessor at Finance) are not the new Liz Truss cabinet. Unlike after a general election, cabinet appointments following an internal leadership change are invariably given to those who stood by the winner and not to those who opposed her.
It might seem strange, but it is true that it is the Conservative Party and not the Labour that is rapidly changing the gender and colour profiles of the British cabinet. Labour is yet to have a woman as its leader and there are not many people of colour among its frontline MPs as there are among the Conservatives. The latter also speaks to the entrenched conservatism of established and ‘model’ immigrants. In contrast, the majority of immigrants are socially and economically underprivileged; they vote labour but have fewer representatives from their ranks.
The truth of the matter is that even as post-Brexit Tory cabinets are becoming increasingly polychromatic, they are also becoming historically more right-wing conservative. The ministers of colour in Tory cabinets are also on the right wing of the Conservative Party. There is no difference in ideology or policy between the outgoing Home Minister Priti Patel and her replacement Suella Braverman. Both strong Brexiteers, the two women of colour also support UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights and sending cross-Channel migrants to Rwanda for refugee processing. Braverman considers Twitter “a sewer of left-wing bile,” has “admiration and gratitude for what Britain did for Mauritius and Kenya, and India,” and credits the British Empire for being “a force for good.”