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After the sun set on Empire

Queen Elizabeth II,ruling nothing in particular,is a fading Britain’s last living monument to grander times

Written by Harish Trivedi | Published: June 14, 2012 3:22:53 am

Queen Elizabeth II,ruling nothing in particular,is a fading Britain’s last living monument to grander times

The royal barge of Queen Elizabeth II on the Thames during her recent Diamond Jubilee was not “like a burnished throne” and did not seem to “burn on the water” with its golden glow,as Shakespeare said of Cleopatra’s barge. For one thing,it was raining pretty hard. “It’s pouring down buckets,” said a BBC TV reporter,and even that was a British understatement,for it was actually raining cats and dogs,in that equally British (and oddly cruel) overstatement. The flotilla that sailed past the queen appeared ragged and somewhat underwhelming,while those who sailed in those drenched vessels looked like drowned rats. Altogether,it was a very British moment.

It seemed sadly apt that the gods themselves had chosen literally to rain on the queen’s parade. What a far cry this was from the last Diamond Jubilee celebrated by a British monarch. In 1897,Victoria,Queen of Great Britain and Ireland since 1837 and Empress of India since 1877,still ruled the waves and a quarter of the globe. The present queen doesn’t rule anything in particular; she just is.

Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 21st,the British have lost a fair bit of ground. They have lost the Empire,they keep losing regularly in games they themselves invented,and they have virtually ceded to the Americans another grand invention of theirs — the English language. Who now speaks,or even speaks of,the Queen’s English?

But the queen remains. She has no clear constitutional privileges or obligations,for the British don’t have much of a written Constitution. Apparently,the queen has even fewer powers than the president of India.

But Queen Elizabeth has one thing that Queen Victoria did not. She is head of the Commonwealth,and that’s what links her to us,even if tenuously. The Commonwealth is the shadow of the Empire to which the British still cling. And even the Commonwealth lost what little collective authority it once had when in the 1980s,Britain brazenly defied the vast majority of its fellow member states and refused to impose sanctions against Apartheid rule in South Africa. The Commonwealth still hobbles along,awarding scholarships and literary prizes,but even these are sometimes spurned,as being tainted with colonialism,by a writer like Amitav Ghosh. Already in 1988,Salman Rushdie,since knighted by the queen,had decreed “Commonwealth Literature should not exist.”

But even if the Commonwealth is now a shadow of a shadow,the queen keeps her end up by touring parts of it ceremonially and doing what she can to promote goodwill. Shedding protocol,she goes on informal “walkabouts”,in which she slowly proceeds down a path,stopping every few steps to speak to people she does not know and will never see again. I witnessed one such occasion on which,incidentally,she looked less dour and dowdy than she often does on TV,and was the picture of ready affability. She came ambling down the garden at the British high commissioner’s residence in Delhi,and stopped almost directly in front of me.

But then,after a discreet word in her ear,she spoke instead to the person standing next to me — a vice-chancellor who’d been to Cambridge. “Which college did you go to?” she asked ever so pleasantly. “Sidney Sussex,” he replied matter-of-factly. It was obvious she’d never heard of it. “Is it nice and small? Did you enjoy yourself there?” she asked. “Madam,madam,it is the biggest college in Cambridge!” said the vice-chancellor,and as the queen moved on,he looked utterly bemused. Of course,the last word on such brief encounters belongs to Roger Federer. When asked what the queen had said to him at Wimbledon in 2010,he replied deadpan: “She told me to hit more backhand cross-courts.”

Ah,the poor old queen whom everyone feels entitled to have a dig at! She is historically obsolete and superfluous,and has a job without a proper job description. But she’s done it for so long now that she has become her job. The British don’t like change,and she is a long-living monument of that national proclivity. Little do they know of the joys of looking high and low every five years for the next president.

The writer is former professor of English,Delhi University

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