For many residents of the United Kingdom, the death of Queen Elizabeth II has prompted questions about how the country is transitioning—substantively and symbolically—into a new era. Elizabeth ascended the throne seventy years ago, as the country was recovering from the Second World War and was in the process of losing its empire. More recently, British voters opted to leave the European Union; Liz Truss, the current Prime Minister, who took office the same week as the Queen’s death, is arguably the most right-wing leader in the country’s recent history.
To discuss the political and social landscape today, and how Britain should wrestle with its past, I spoke by phone with two writers, David Edgerton and Nesrine Malik. Edgerton is a professor of history at King’s College London who has written a series of books and articles disputing the notion that Margaret Thatcher saved the United Kingdom from a prolonged period of postwar decline. Malik is a columnist at the Guardian, and the author of “We Need New Stories,” which traces the angst over recent debates surrounding free speech. She wrote recently that the ascension of a new monarch offered the chance for a more unvarnished and honest appraisal of British history and society.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. Edgerton and Malik discussed whether the legacy of the British Empire has been ignored or overstated, the changing nature of British conservatism, and what the response to the Queen’s death says about the United Kingdom.
During the past several weeks, there’s been a prevailing narrative that the Queen’s legacy was presiding over a country—and helping it through—a period of decline. David, what is your response to that?
David Edgerton: It was all too predictable, because so much of British history relies on a notion of decline. Since 1940, the U.K. has been in a period of massive relative decline, for sure. The weight of the U.K. in the world is much reduced, and continues to fall. But, at the same time, the British economy has expanded. And, in fact, in the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the economy grew faster than it had ever grown. Between, say, ’53 and ’73, we had the highest-ever recorded rates of economic growth. We’re talking about two very different ideas: the improvement of the economy—the improvement of people’s lives and people’s health—happening alongside the radical diminution of British geopolitical power.
Nesrine Malik: I would agree with David that we’re actually talking about two different things when we talk about decline, because there’s the decline from empire, which is specifically Britain’s role as a colonial power, until probably the Suez conflict. That’s when I think things became quite clear that they were in decline. But, the second point, which makes it very difficult to make the first, is that things are getting better, not just on an economic basis but on a social and cultural basis and as immigration increased to the U.K. Racial harmony has, if not become complete, definitely improved over the past few decades.
But it’s kind of a tricky framing, because it’s quite easy to distract from the essential point, which is that Britain perceives itself in terms of its history, its empire, and its colonial legacy. It doesn’t define itself in terms of the two decades from the nineteen-fifties to the seventies. It doesn’t even define itself in the past two decades, which is where I would actually argue a lot of the social and political developments have happened. So the reactions toward the Queen’s death and the lens of a waning power might not be relevant in the absolute, but they are definitely relevant in terms of how Britain perceives itself and how it defines both its identity and its power in the world today.
D.E.: I think there’s a tendency to over-imperialize recent British history. The people that are mourning the Queen, with tiny exceptions, did not live in a period where the U.K. was at the center of an empire. The British Empire was most definitely over in 1947 or 1948—Suez is putting it rather too late. Of course, there are colonies that remained into the early nineteen-sixties, at least. And the great British military deployments after the war are in Europe, not in the Empire. I’m not saying that empire doesn’t exist or have a certain role in politics, but it most definitely was not what it was. Elizabeth was the first post-imperial Queen. There was a major transition from empire to nation—the whole nature of monarchy changed.
N.M.: It’s interesting, this very literal approach to empire. I suppose you have to be literal if you’re speaking about history, because it’s about dates—beginnings and endings. But I would argue that, in the U.K., even if we are not living technically in an empire, empire is very much still with us. And there is still a huge propagandistic element to how empire is taught, examined, and disseminated in popular culture, particularly since Brexit, with the appeals to history, to Britain’s power in the past, the sort of imagery of empire with a little bit of the Second World War. Even though people are not technically in an empire, not going off and becoming colonial civil servants in South Asia or East Africa, they are learning a history that does two things: glorifies empire and refuses to talk about it in any way that is not via this very specific British perspective.
With the death of the Queen, there have been these two separate conversations, one happening within the U.K. and one happening in ex-colonies outside the U.K., showing a very different experience and recollection. Empire and colonialism is very much woven into the fabric of British society. It’s a very specific narrative and one that has been enforced top down by the state, particularly in the past few years under the Conservative government. [Boris Johnson’s] government made requests that empire be taught as an account that needs pros and cons or to be equivocated. Empire is woven into British exceptionalism, status, and self-identity; to omit that context underestimates how much we still do live in an empire. People who point that out are not the ones who are over-imperializing. It is the British state, the education system, and the political élites who are over-imperializing.
D.E.: I’m not being literal about empire. My argument is that empire was hugely important to the British élite into the nineteen-forties, and much more important than most people understand, to the extent that they thought of the key polity as not the nation but, rather, the Empire. It was a very important change to go from that position to the postwar position. And things have changed again. There is a little bit of an element on the right of celebrating empire, so you’re right about that, but it’s not a continuous story. It’s also important not to conflate, as many on the left do, the notion of British global power with empire. British power has been largely directed at potential European antagonists. It’s not accidental that a lot of the nostalgia for British power is focussed on the Second World War and not on empire.