Zareer Masani writes on the Queen and the Commonwealth
As one of Midnight’s Children, born just after India achieved independence, I was an unlikely royalist. And yet, ever since I can remember, I was fascinated by kings and queens, especially the latter. With hindsight, perhaps I offset my own childhood feelings of helplessness and inadequacy by revelling in the empowerment of ‘the gentler sex’. My particular childhood heroines were tragic figures like Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette, going bravely to their execution. But I also admired successful female monarchs like Maria Theresa of Austria and Catherine the Great of Russia, triumphing against all odds in a male-dominated world.
I must confess that the British monarchy, in its Hanoverian incarnation, held little appeal for me. My sympathies were staunchly Jacobite, with poor exiled James II, betrayed by his daughters, and with his romantic grandson the Bonnie Prince. Nevertheless, like most of the world, I lapped up the film footage of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, featuring a pretty and fragile monarch and her fairy tale Prince Charming.
I only met the lady once. I remember a hot, sultry evening in early 1960s Bombay, lining up with my mother to greet the Queen at a reception for her in the gardens of the colonial Government House. I admired the warm smile she managed to retain throughout, looking as cool and regal as ever in sparkling diamond tiara and brocade gown, despite the humid Bombay heat.
By the time I reached Oxford, some years later, as a newly converted Trotskyist, I had little time for the monarchy, which I mostly dismissed as a parasitical and philistine institution with little real interest in the arts. It wasn’t until a decade later, returned to liberal sanity, that I began to appreciate the virtues of a constitutional monarchy. The Queen, as a decorative and conscientious figurehead, also began to look like an essential anchor for the otherwise so disparate Commonwealth.
The reverence and adulation the Queen has attracted in almost every Commonwealth country she visited from Singapore to the Caribbean has been due partly to her own tolerance, humour and dedication, but also to a less tangible royal mystique, safely indulged in countries that had abandoned their own traditional monarchies for republics. In an age that had rejected the concept of empire, the Queen somehow managed to remain a living link with the positive postcolonial legacies of language, parliaments and the rule of law. And when most other crowned heads had given way to elected presidents, the Queen managed for seventy years to avoid political controversy and to strengthen a non-partisan national institution dating back more than a millennium.
Nothing has confirmed this legacy more than the manner of her passing, quickly and quietly, without the indignity of a long illness, but mourned so magnificently with a precision and controlled grief that are so uniquely British, the stiff upper lip quivering with emotion, but still in place. The Queen would have been as justly proud of our solemn commemoration as we are of her life of dedication and service.
Dr Zareer Masani is a freelance historian, journalist and broadcaster. The author of a number of historical books, he spent two decades as a current affairs producer for the BBC.