Today
Wed 12 August 2020
Subscribe

Comments by the Queen’s grandson on the need to ‘right those wrongs’ from the past across the Commonwealth reveal why he is rebelling against the system that created him, writes Hardeep Matharu 

Share this article

“When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past. So many people have done such an incredible job of acknowledging the past and trying to right those wrongs, but I think we all acknowledge there is so much more still to do. It’s not going to be easy and in some cases it’s not going to be comfortable.”

The reigning monarch may have felt some of the discomfort her grandson, Prince Harry, was referring to yesterday – if the Daily Mail is to be believed. 

For both him and his wife, Meghan Markle, grace the newspaper’s front page today with a caption dripping with disapproval: ‘Now Harry Says: Time to Right “Wrongs” of Commonwealth’.

Its online site had already explored how ‘Harry risks angering the Queen’ with his words, while the Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell told the news site that “I don’t agree with what he is saying. We should look forward not back”. The question is: will Britain ever find a catapult large enough to fling itself any further from its past?

Others criticised the Duke of Sussex, who is the President of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, for his apparent ignorance of the role played by the creation of the Commonwealth in alleviating some of the very wrongs he identified. 

Set up in 1931, as Britain’s territories began acquiring independence, the Commonwealth – of which the Queen is head – consists of 54 member states, nearly all of which are former colonies of the British Empire. The countries – including Australia, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, New Zealand and St Lucia, all of which still recognise the Queen as their head of state – cover 20% of the world’s land mass.

In contrast to the British Empire, the Commonwealth sounded, by its very nature, like a much more egalitarian endeavour. Interestingly, the term has also been used to denote republicanism, with four American states – Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia – officially known as “commonwealths” to this day. All four were under British control before the founding of the United States and are still influenced by the English common law in their institutions and legal systems.

Although Prince Harry referred to the “Commonwealth”, his sentiment was clear: that what was done to and in these former colonies of the British Empire, in its entirety, must be recognised and atoned for.

In referring to the existing organisation of the Commonwealth rather than the British Empire – which the public generally relegates to ‘the past’ – the Duke of Sussex also inadvertently pointed to a wider truth: that the unconfronted history of Empire is the story of our present.

For the Queen’s grandson to make such comments – accompanied by his wife, a successful American woman of colour with whom he is dedicating himself to the cause of social justice – is significant. Not for any anti-monarchy sentiment some may say he is stirring (just 11% of those polled by YouGov in June believed the monarchy to be ‘bad for Britain’) but because of what it reveals about the system of which he is a product; the structures silently in place governing us all.

Of its myopia and secrecy; its English imperialist mindset steeped in class, deference and othering, with a monarch as its figurehead.


Embers of Empire

In his book The History Thieves, Ian Cobain explains how ‘Operation Legacy’, the Government-authorised destruction and concealing of thousands of documents relating to Britain’s colonial rule in a number of countries, intended to obliterate any records that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government, members of the police, military forces, public servants or others” as Britain’s colonies, one by one, gained their independence.

“On the partition of India in August 1947, one Colonial Office official noted that ‘the press regularly enjoyed themselves with the pall of smoke which hung over Delhi during the mass destruction of documents’,” Cobain writes.

That Operation Legacy only came to light as recently as 2013 – when the Foreign Office was forced to disclose some of the documents hidden in a secret archive because of a case brought against the Government by a group of Kenyans for their abuse at the hands of the British during the Mau Mau rebellion in the country in the 1950s – shows how Prince Harry’s comments were en pointe. We still do not know our history and it is actively being concealed from us. Myths and propaganda, crafted and honed over time, have gone unquestioned and unexamined.

As head of state, the Queen may sit above politics and society but she is indicative of it, representing the continuity of how things have always been done. With no written constitution or explicit expression of shared national civic values, the monarchy is Britain’s default. To this end, it has tried to stay relevant and ride the zeitgeist.

In its more modern incarnation – from aristocratic to post-war ‘middle-class’ – it has survived affairs, divorces and scandals, while creating a “People’s Princess” and welcoming ‘Home Counties’ Kate Middleton as a future Queen Consort. Prince Harry’s wife, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, was likely earmarked as another outward signal of The Firm ‘moving with the times’. 

But what the institution stands for remains ultimately unchanged.

In a car-crash interview with Emily Maitlis last year discussing his friendship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the Queen’s favourite son Prince Andrew denied inviting him to a party he had hosted.

“It was a shooting weekend… a straightforward shooting weekend,” he said, appearing slightly incredulous that anyone outside the English upper classes could not have assumed as much.

Months later, Prince Harry and Meghan announced their departure as senior royals. Whatever is said of her personality, a strong woman of colour, a former actress and social justice warrior from the United States was never going to survive in the Royal Family.

Sitting in a mansion in Los Angeles and viewing it from afar, Prince Harry – a product of the class privilege, secrets and lies at the heart of Britain’s cultural and institutional make-up – can now see Great Britain for what it is.

As our murky past continues to play out in the present, in a Brexit Britain led by an English Etonian ruling class, when will we see it for what it is too? 


Stay up to date with news from the Byline Times Team

More stories filed under The Legacy of Empire

More stories filed under Argument