The British Empire lives on... in the minds of the New York Times
They could have waited a couple of days before criticising the Queen
Unusually for me, being a cold-blooded Englishman whose emotional range is somewhere between Peter Cushing in Star Wars and Tywin Lannister, I found myself crying over the news yesterday evening. I cry more as I get older – presumably it’s all the testosterone draining away – and I shed tears for the Queen.
Her Majesty’s death was announced around 6.30 GMT. Soon after 9pm the New York Times pops up on Twitter, in its usual sanctimonious, scolding told, telling us that ‘We should not romanticize her era,’ because, according to a Harvard professor ‘The queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.’
Our Queen has died, a deeply-loved, politically-neutral figure who many saw as being like another grandmother. She was someone we all knew throughout our lives, who felt like a protective figure, associated with the political stability that our island has enjoyed for so long.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, the voice of America’s progressive establishment thought it appropriate to immediately publish this article, with the headline ‘Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire’, something literally no one even considered or thought about. The British Empire may be long dead but it lives on, timeless and immortal, in the minds of New York Times editors.
Much has been written about the changing social mores of the Queen’s reign, but I think it’s still generally accepted that you wait until a person is buried before launching criticisms of their legacy; at the very least a couple of days. Yet while even the Kremlin managed to send some kind words on Queen Elizabeth’s passing, the New York Times went straight in with the yes-she-will-be-mourned-but.
As head of the Commonwealth, the Queen ‘put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.’
‘We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name,’ the historian concludes, but ‘xenophobia and racism have been rising, fueled by the toxic politics of Brexit. Picking up on a longstanding investment in the Commonwealth among Euroskeptics (both left and right) as a British-led alternative to European integration, Mr. Johnson’s government (with the now-Prime Minister Liz Truss as its foreign secretary) leaned into a vision of “Global Britain” steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia.’
And so, ‘The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation.’
This is something of a theme in Times coverage of Britain. Earlier this week another piece on the comment pages greeted the arrival of Liz Truss by claiming that Britain is still enthralled to Empire.
While the PM wants to be the new Margaret Thatcher, the author argued, she was actually the heir of Enoch Powell. Because Powell supported proto-Thatcherite economic ideas, and he was also a supporter of Empire, Truss is somehow the carrier of his flame: ‘The British Empire may have all but ended 60 years ago, but the country’s next prime minister is still in thrall to its legacy.’ It concluded: ‘under Ms. Truss, the broken mentality of empire rules. And it is everyday Britons who will pay the price.’
The paper has become somewhat notorious over here for its coverage; this week, for example, it also featured Jonathan Pie claiming that ‘You can't get in or out of the country because of airline staff shortages and queues at border control’. That’s strange, I thought; I’ve flown in and out twice in the past month, and walked straight through passport control. There’s no denying that Britain faces some serious problems, but that just isn’t true.
Times coverage of Britain has been disputed on various occasions, one being a piece about Prescot in Lancashire which made claims about austerity questioned by various people. The problems here are real; it’s certainly the case that many police stations have been shut across the country, and austerity has caused pain, but the Times certainly appears keen to paint a negative picture of Britain. This is true even of food, perhaps the most widely-shared piece been one that claimed people here ate ‘porridge and boiled mutton’ until quite recently.
The running theme of NYT coverage is that Britain is some ultra-conservative backwater forever looking back at imperial greatness. One piece in 2017 claimed that ‘Brexit is rooted in imperial nostalgia and myths of British exceptionalism’ and that ‘global Britain’ was ‘simply a sanitized version of the dream of a British Empire in which every eastern and southern corner of the globe could be imagined as an Englishman’s rightful backyard, ready for him to stride into, whenever he so chose, to impose his will and make his fortune.’ In fact it was quite the opposite, as was quite clear even at the time if you listened to leading Tory Brexit campaigners.