“Just because they give you a seat at the table, doesn’t mean they want you to speak at the table” – Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Postcolonial Banter
Was the Coronation Simply Imperialist Tea on the Lawn?
As Britain lies in the wake of a triage of royal propaganda since last summer – the Queen’s Jubilee in June, The Funeral in September, and more recently the Coronation of Charles and Camilla – uncritical engagement with the monarchy does not end with national commiserations of empire and imperialism. In Northampton, the postcolonial nonchalance continues with organisations like the Royal & Derngate’s upcoming Windrush 75 event in late July, while in May they were two-siding the monarchy when they invited author-historian Tracy Borman to talk about How to Be A Good Monarch. This is further to the fact they were the endorsing the monarchy last summer as they held space for Northampton Bach Choir’s Jubilee Proms, all this while having previously made so-called ‘commitments’ to Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to be saying that you are organisationally in support of anti-racism, only then to be celebrating the monarchy?
However, the local theatre was not alone in their flip-flopping: heritage organisation Delapré Abbey joined the throng when they decided to have ‘The Coronation Big Lunch’ (admittedly organised by West Northamptonshire Council), only for in October 2021 to have asked me to consider helping them look into their colonial history. The two-siding of the monarchy by local so-called liberal organisations is palpable; the double standards to claim to be doing equality work while then being pro-monarchy … I actually have more respect for the overtly right-wing because at least I know what their beliefs are. Or just as Alexander and the Ensemble sing during the Burr-Jefferson presidential race in American broadway musical Hamilton:
Though, while enslaver Thomas Jefferson is hardly liberal he had beliefs! That’s the point I am making. Right-wing organisation are largely honestly evil, where liberals will try to befriend you first. Meanwhile, at the Wellingborough African and Caribbean Association [WACA] on Rock Street, with community activist and Happy Hood editor Laura Graham – we hosted an event on 1st May (that bank holiday Monday) called Alternative History: Stories of the Monarchy You Didn’t Hear At School with human rights non-profit organisation Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council.
As I walked the streets of Northampton in days leading up to The Coronation Weekend, I was reminded at how unsafe Britain is if you happen to not be born into a bubble of white privilege. Northampton Town Centre was populated with rippling red, white and blue – jingoism mimicking the days preceding and following the Jubilee. And I was triggered: cafes, restaurants, and pubs which are supposed to present safety for all customers, suddenly leaned into overt support of white supremacy, uncritically embracing the far-right – flags like body bags; bunting galore curating a Little England for the white and British.
Kehinde Andrews writes:
What the comedian Jack Whitehall humorously stated as “Tory Glastonbury”, was white supremacy in full swing. Universities, for example, were at the nucleus. In writing this article, I spoke to Rhianna Garrett – a PhD researcher, scholar-activist and geographer looking at the relationship of space – who passionately talked to me about how institutions made efforts to appear apolitical, while there was “distinct differences in the treatment of whiteness and events in comparison to non-white social issues.” Universities nationwide acted effectively to both the Jubilee and the Queen’s Death, further to The Coronation.
Garrett elaborated, saying universities had budgeted for royal celebrations, to include “social media, deals on food, celebration materials, days off etc and force everyone to participate.” She also said this included higher education imposing this on international students who do not care about this culture. And as Charles and Camilla showed off their gold coach, public sector workers continue to be problematised for asking for a livable wage. No pay for teachers, nurses, rail workers, and university lecturers, but the nineteenth century royal coach that Charles and Camilla rode in, is reportedly worth £2m.
The Cost of Capitalism is a political choice having a disproportionately negative impact on working people. Images of exuberant levels of wealth was streamed through our televisions, phones, and other smart devices as the population were expected to tolerate this institution of violence. Yet, I say “expected to tolerate”, but we are tolerating it. As I wandered Northampton that weekend, I was troubled by the silence of white leftists who were happy criticising systems in private but when I asked them for comment for this article, were silent. Or as Audre Lorde stated decades ago, “Your silence won’t protect you.”
Since June 2022, Nenequirer editor Steve Scoles has supported the publication of two articles on The Queen’s Jubilee and her colonial legacy, responding to wider debates about the monarchy’s facilitation of violence and unfairness. In our conversations last June, we debated about the possibility of The Queen’s death and possible backlash. The Queen then died in September, and this provoked another article. Analysis from activists, scholars and your Joe and Jane Bloggs from the street (not all of them I agree with) about the monarchy since June 2022 arrived – while I saw a big debate on empire and colonialism that eclipsed the same conversations following the Murder of George Floyd three summers ago.
LBC journalist Tom Swarbrick (who used to be advisor to Theresa May … ahem) further challenged a royalist caller. This time around, I found social media commentary to be quiet in comparison to The Jubilee and Queen’s Funeral. Though, the tweet about #TamponGate by author Kelechi Okafor made me laugh. Comedy has long been used by Black people on Twitter to commentate on serious issues (#BlackTwitter). As sometimes, I believe if we do not laugh we will cry. Kelechi’s tweet was not random, but a reference to a 1989 phonecall between Charles and Camilla that was leaked by the press in a 1993 scandal. The two had an intimate sexualised exchange. In short, he confessed to wanting to “live inside” Camilla’s trousers, joking that in another life he might be reincarnated as a tampon.
Furthermore, schools as institutions that often talk about safeguarding children were doing the most during The Jubilee and Coronation. Historically, schools have been key supporters of the British Empire. In his book Empireland, author-journalist Sathnam Sanghera talks about how private schools staffed the British Empire. Sanghera observes such schools included Uppingham in Rutland, Eton in London, and Clifton in Bristol – the last described as a school that “usually trained the men who took up lowlier but still prestigious positions in the military and imperial service …” This made private schools ideal for planting colonial ideology in the minds of children. Schools too, have historically celebrated Empire Days.
When I talked to literary critic Prof Corinne Fowler, she further told me “Having been involved in the training of history teachers, the legacy of this is apparent because trainees are typically unaware of the royal family’s 270-year connection to slavery.” And while Empire Days stopped in England in 1958, when PM Harold Macmillan made an address about it in Westminster, Empire Day in Northern Ireland only stopped in 1962. As far as The Coronation, one teacher told me about the alarming numbers of “resources, displays, worksheets, and art projects written about the upcoming coronation in primary schools.”
The Department of Education pushed a narrative that situated the monarchy as objectively good, and used state schools to do it: “Our timeline is filled with joyous #Coronation celebrations in schools across the country! Special thanks to Fairfield First School, Necton CofE Primary School, and Inclusion College in Hampshire for sharing these with us.”
Schools further show their complicity in the continuation of whiteness via uncritical implementation of ‘British Values’ as a “moral education”. Scholar-activist Red Medusa also showed how the way children are looked after by adults in their spheres of influence can and should have activist interpretations. It shows that it is well within parents and guardians’ rights to disagree with school decision-making, and to in fact act independently for the emotional safety their child(ren) – when schools cannot or will not act.
Increasingly, whiteness is appearing in more naked terms as the British state leans further and further to the political right. This country has more foodbanks than McDonald’s restaurants and the climate crisis is now also appearing more brazenly. On one of the hottest days of the year, my friend and colleague Northamptonshire Rights & Equality CEO Anjona Roy (quoted in the first essay) was delayed returning from London due to points failure and fire near the tracks, showing the double threat of climate disaster and austerity. This was followed by police arresting anti-monarchy protesters on Coronation Day.
The state-imposed grief last September moved adjacent to the many preventable COVID-19 deaths and high mortalities largely due to policymaking, in contrast to alleged corruption in government. This article is the final of three, just reflecting on my thoughts on monarchy in general, including but not exclusive to The Coronation. As a historian, I am seeing colonialism has come home to roost – from heritage organisations that uncritically celebrate empire to police forces being trained to crush rebellion, this is imperial violence at home. Meanwhile, speaking out against the establishment is being contested as anti-British and it is being pioneered by Black and Brown people under the racial optics of diversity.
In the wake of the Queen’s Funeral and The Coronation of Charles and Camilla, it is clear anti-monarchy debates are no longer only a Black-white problem, but a people problem. As journalist and political commentator Ash Sarkar says, “I mean, this idea that all you need is brown faces in high places is just absolutely for the birds. […] That just because somebody shares some of your identity attributes, it doesn’t mean that they are going to be organising in your interests.” The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion agenda has many in a chokehold; representation politics is not the be all and end all for ending racism, where structural positioning and “looks like me” are not the same thing.
Three years on from the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, local organisations mourn colonialism like an old friend as higher educational institutions still talk about the climate emergency with the absence of debates on capitalism and empire. We are now engaged in a war of wills, and summer has arrived – a long summer that may never end.
In my last two essays about The Jubilee and The Death of Queen Elizabeth II, I highlighted royal complicity in the British Empire. More recently, anti-capitalist zine The Commoner kindly published my essay about Black artists, the UK Honours System and the creative industry. Though, whilst Black and Brown people were active resisters to colonialism – as Peter Fryer discusses in his book Black People in the British Empire – today, we have seen an increasing number of Black and Brown people in the public eye rewarded with empire honourifics like MBEs and OBEs for their – arguable though probable assimilation – as well as apolitical public profiles. As Athena Kugblena further tweeted about Black acceptance into the establishment as dependent on “not rocking any significant boats.”
Though, I do know however, some people I know that grew up watching Floella Benjamin on children’s television, find it difficult to challenge her. For context, in May 2023 she was challenged by numerous Black people due to her new portrait (her portrait that accompanies her role in the House of Lords). Her new portrait – showing her dressed in a white ballet costume – was compounded by her decision to take part in The Coronation parade. Floella Benjamin’s participation in The Coronation, represents, as writer-author Nels Abbey tweeted: “Boris Johnson’s greatest legacy … the systemic divorcing of diversity and equality.” In short, the diversity agenda centres and reinforces white supremacy.
During that weekend, popular historian and broadcaster David Olusoga was centre of a Twitter spat with journalist Amanda Platell. In my essay for The Commoner, I discuss this further. To summarise, the journalist claimed he had called the monarchy ‘institutionally racist’ when he had not. However, are they not in fact a racist institution? Why was this a debate? When numbers of people brought challenges on the grounds of colourism, establishmentarianism, and consistency … they were blocked. Proximity to power is something I see appearing in increasingly naked terms for Black people in the public eye, with institutions making sure radical Black people are gatekept from big platforms.
The Black people being given the platforms (in large) are not challenging anything. Is this due to the debates around equitable renumeration and reparations? First coined by Derrick Bell in the 1980s, critical race theorists call this phenomenon ‘interest convergence’ – a situation where Black progress only happens within a white supremacist system when it is not only linked with Black liberals (i.e those given huge platforms), but also the interests of white institutions. It is difficult to see people that look like you and members of your family acting in ways that run counter to the upliftment of Black and Brown people.
Following the release of the government’s so-called ‘inquiry’ into racism in March 2021 – donned The Sewell Report – there was criticism from critics like Ash Sarkar and Dr Halima Begum. However, this is part of a wider grift that continued into the “diversification of the Honours List” following racism allegations after Harry & Meghan’s interview with US talkshow host Oprah. One TikToker also called the Tory leadership race “representation in the pits of hell.” This aptly compliments what sociologist Emma Dabiri later tweeted in May 2022 about how popular focuses on the ‘racial optics’ of representation, “obscures way too much about class, as well as access to opportunities and resources.”
Britain held the most diverse leadership race in the history of the Conservative Party. As openDemocracy editor Nandini Archer wrote: “That’s how the colonial system of ‘divide and rule’ has always worked – it uses Black and Brown faces in high places to serve the ruling class.” Further, the debacles with Floella Benjamin and David Olusoga represents a social and political culture that has divorced equality from diversity, in fact protecting whiteness through the voices and actions of Black and Brown people.
Even worse, as MPs Priti Patel and Suella Braverman – both from African-Asian backgrounds – have pushed policies to the detriment of Black and Brown people, all while refugees are left to drown in the English Channel. In December 2021, Slough MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi gave an address criticising the government for using its Black and Brown MPs to do its racist bidding.
University professor Corinne Fowler further told me how difficult it has been to see Black and Brown people producing works like The Sewell Report that denied the existence of institutional racism, “rather than [illustrating] a demonstrable, verifiable reality and an ongoing scourge.” The literary critic and Green Unpleasant Land author added it was depressing to see these very same people in high office “formulate, articulate and promoting policies which stigmatise vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers, and who seek to divide people and promote racist sentiments and policies of all kinds.”
In parallel to government, the role of education as an oppressive structure is beyond reasonable doubt. One of the biggest issues within the education system in the UK now is the amnesia of the curriculum. Since the 1980s, battles over what is included in the core curriculum within England’s schools have been rampant.
In her chapter ‘Rhodes Must Fall: Oxford and Movements for Change’, academic Dalia Gebrial writes “… nowhere was the debate more heated … than in the history syllabus” and goes on to say that education scholars described ‘the great history debate’ as “nothing less than a public and vibrant debate over the national soul.” Today, it is possible to still meet schoolteachers and secondary school-age schoolchildren who do not know anything about empire, nor the role of the British Crown within it.
As a freelance educator, I am asked to go into schools to talk about colonialism because the expertise is frequently not within the school. Activist-victimologist Dr Amy Cortvriend told me
Locally, the mural of Charles and Elizabeth on Guildhall Road reminds us of how cultural artwork can be used to perpetuate the mythmaking of the monarchy. Northampton activist Hannah Litt described it as “a slap in the face to anyone that has been impacted by colonialism and a constant reminder of the continued institutional racism the monarchy plays a part in.” Writer-photographer Chris Lowe added: “I would prefer that art on the streets was created in celebration of the people that walk them, work them, live on them and die on them, as many do.”
While we saw Charles and Camilla having a jolly in solid gold coach, schools were some of the most vocal supporters of the royal hurrah. The Department of Education’s Facebook page illustrated the role of schools in the cultural mythmaking of The Crown. At this point, the monarchy have to do very little; the public are doing all the work spreading the story with royal Lambrini, decorative crisps, bunting, and God knows what else. The Jubilee and The Funeral were a marketing masterclass, and The Coronation was the finale.
Schools, like universities and other institutions, were part of the throng. However, though, ‘safeguarding’ is a term often used in schools in the protection of children, there is a selective amnesia when safeguarding does not extends to the preventing the violence of imposing the the monarchy’s values. The legacy of the monarchy’s 270-year involvement with enslavement appeared beyond the interest of schools in favour of smiles and good vibes facilitated by leadership teams and governing boards. Schools were key parts of building the myth of empire, and royal history is still centralised in many history curricula.
Earlier in the year, The Guardian newspaper published articles by established Black scholars and commentators including Gary Younge, Olivette Otele and David Olusoga discussing colonial enslavement and racism. Olusoga’s long-read was excellent, showing The Guardian’s own history entangled with colonialism and enslavement. Charles also then gave a ‘commitment’ to researching his family’s links to colonialism.
Though, whilst some may see this as a good thing, there is research on this going back decades. Why not use what has already been evidenced by numerous already? His ‘pledge’ appeared to act like this new research would be a start from scratch. Performative allyship does not begin to describe it, and what would be more helpful would be a commitment to reparations and reparative justice. As the monarchy has not yet used its platforms to tell their story of colonialism other than nonsense fake apologies that ultimately amount to nothing, including Prince William’s “profound sorrow.”
Adjacent debates over the family feud between Team Harry & Meghan and Team Kate & William only seek to distract from the fact today’s royal racism is connected to – say, the brandings of ‘RAC’ – etched into the bodies of many enslaved Africans leaving Bunce Island (Sierra Leone) in the eighteenth century. The RAC is the acronym for the Royal African Company lead by Charles II and his brother James Duke of York (the future James II), a human trafficking corporation designed to transport kidnapped enslaved Africans from the African continent to the Americas.
Public engagement with Harry & Meghan as somehow being ‘good royals’ is in danger of seeing good in capitalism. The education sector has lapsed in its responsibility to educate and has become part of the allure. Whilst abolition is something on many minds, as a population we are far from this debate; what I do see is far more troubling. Apathy. Not in fact an anti-royal population, but a public that do not care. This comes as Black and Brown students have ‘British Values’ imposed upon them. What makes values British, rather than human? Paul Gilroy’s 1987 book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack offers other points of view about the crossovers of race, class and nation.
Though students are not forced to sing the national anthem anymore (largely), nationalism is imposed in other ways. For example, going to private schools I was told I had to do either Duke of Edinburgh Award (DofE) or Combined Cadet Force (CCF), so the sum of my choices was monarchy or military? Ultimately, I spent several months in Royal Navy Cadets which was in of itself a sum of monarchy and military. My rights were not respected – as the late bell hooks writes, “When we love children, we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights – that we respect and uphold their rights.”
As a Black person, I know at one point in history it was the job of the Royal Navy to protect British commerce across the Atlantic, including slave ships. The place of Black people in these institutions of violence does not fit so nicely, even as Black soldiers fought at Trafalgar and Black sailors were in the Merchant Navy at the start of twentieth century.
However, today’s school ‘celebrations’ of the monarchy run parallel to the numbers of Black children in my circles that are victims of racism in school. Even while victim, they are being forced to celebrate an institution that despises them. Worse as statistics are showing many young people (18-24) are not in favour of the monarchy. For example, a YouGov Poll for BBC’s Panorama showed 4 in 10 of those aged 18-24 of the people polled preferred an elected Head of State. Moreover, data from Statista in April showed likewise. What I saw that weekend was imperial violence at home, with police also acting as the militaristic arm of the state sent in, to curb those protesting the monarchy and the coronation.
On his ascension into Number 10, PM Rishi Sunak inherited legislations introduced by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Firstly, the Policing Act that changed the terms of ‘disruptive protest’ to also include noise. Furthermore, the Public Order Act. Within the latter, new measures would also allow police to ban protests before they happened – preemptively – not dissimilar to the plot to Marvel’s comic story Civil War II about stopping crimes before they happen. So, intentions to resist the government, otherwise known as thoughtcrimes – like something pulled from the pages of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Already, we have seen journalists arrested at protests even though the police knew they were journalists. For example, Kent Police were sued receiving a slap on the wrist told they must pay a few thousand pounds compensation after arresting a journalist covering the climate protests. Police have long been the militaristic arm of the state to quell rebellion at home. As far as back as the 1930s, when there were clashes on Cable Street, those clashes were at the end of the baton – police officers brutalising Jewish refugees and Irish migrants in the East End. The police were backing Oswald Mosley (later knighted by the British state) and his British Union of Fascists under the euphemism of so called ‘public order.’
Democracy in this country has always been a pantomime. It is theatre of the absurd with the so-called ‘will of the people’ played out by over six hundred people in Westminster who in large are not allowed to speak their own minds. When those who do speak their own minds speak up, they are systematically silenced and vilified. As we saw with Jeremy Corbyn’s smearing by state-owned media, further to his suspension from The Labour Party.
When I spoke to local activist Paul Crofts – someone who has been on the frontlines of various social justice causes in Northants since the 1990s – he discussed how the police’s approach to the anti-monarchy demonstrations showed the police “do not really understand their role in the context of human rights protections. They see their role as protecting the majority from the ‘disruptive minorities’ who are out to ruin the fun of the majority.”
Violent policing under the euphemism of ‘public order’ is applicable to the policing of numerous groups. In a broadcast for Double Down News, Zarah Sultana MP reminds us of how women were treated as disposable objects when The Met stormed the vigil held in remembrance of Sarah Everard. Wayne Couzens – at the time a serving police officer – was later convicted when it was found he had abused the vague COVID-19 regulations to abduct and murder her – regulations that were also deployed against minoritised groups.
Powers like these given to specific institutions is violence; in a world that thrives on hierarchy, dominance, and social order, the same mechanisms that allowed Wayne Couzens to kill Sarah Everard are the same ones that pervade the establishment. Black communities are by no means the only group impacted by police violence. For example, the overpolicing of gay communities in the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst the annual event Pride is now a source of profit for many institutions under rainbow capitalism, Pride was originally a protest against homophobic policing. It has now been co-opted. i.e why do our local police have a stall at Northampton Pride every year? There is really a selective historical amnesia.
In 1970, at the London School of Economics, the UK Gay Liberation Front was founded when over hundred people rallied against police harassment. Their first protest was in the November of that year in Highbury against the arrest of Louis Eakes on “mere suspicion that he was cruising.” One of the other lasting legacies of historic institutional violence against gay communities is Section 28 – that effectively criminalised gay education in schools. Its wider purpose was to prevent the promotion of homosexuality.
This was introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and is a raw memory for many, including older millennials who were then in school, now in their late thirties and some now in their forties. Anti-Section 28 marches were also overpoliced, as way for police to – for lack of a better term – flex their muscles and assert their power over gay people.
Today, in debates about intersectionality (first coined by Prof Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989) pushes for LGBTQ+ rights still centre cis white men. Black queer activist Liziwe Sam Fembo (he/him) said “white cis gays continually centre themselves in the conversation. Their focus is on marriage, our focus is on survival.” Jack (mentioned above) also said “white cis gays benefit exponentially from their proximity to whiteness. They use it to cancel out their queer identity when in straight cis spaces and further remove themselves from trans people, especially Queer, Trans, Intersex, Black and [Other] People of Colour.”
Perspectives like these necessitate a need for UK Black Pride that has taken place for nearly twenty years. It began in the mid-noughties as a daytrip to Southend-on-Sea by members of Black Lesbians UK (BLUK). In 2019, British Vogue published an interview with founder Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah. These sorts of events remind us how there are always minoritised groups within other minoritised groups. As education academic Dr Riadh Ghemmour further reminds us how privilege is not a binary (i.e having it or not): “It is a spectrum and we all have privileged (and oppressed) identities. Speaking about privilege requires self-examination as it is complex, multi-faceted and (in)visible to many people!”
Considering this further: when you are part of racially minoritised group in a white supremacist society, and then in fact inhabit other markers of ‘difference’ – i.e woman, gay, neurodivergent etc etc – racism makes all forms of discrimination worse. In parts of London, however, like Brixton, bisexual Windrush icon Pearl Alcock from Jamaica “ran underground gay bars, made activist art”, and facilitated important spaces for the Black queer community in late twentieth century London. This occurred concurrently as gay men were convicted for their sexuality. Even as recently as the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it was common for British police to operate in such a way it bordered on entrapment, cottaging etc etc. As police linked homosexuality with crimes like indecency (for example) – so, on paper, gay men even now, remain a large group of sex offenders on UK police records.
With the police institution’s officially being His Majesty’s Police Service, you then see one way the government and monarchy connect. It’s not the government of the people, but one that protects power. Thinking about this, abolition may not go far enough. For example, countries like France merrily colonised others and did so as a republic. In keeping the focus exclusively on monarchy, does this allow governments to evade criticism for their role in violence, no less than the UK government as vehicle for the British Empire?
It was interesting to observe how the liberal left so easily criticised the monarchy during The Jubilee, The Queen’s Funeral, and The Coronation, but were less vocal on the government’s similar involvement in histories of pillage and plunder. We did not choose the Royal Family, but the public have historically chosen its Members of Parliament (sorta).
When the British government paid out the equivalent of £17bn in the 1830s to then former-enslavers, many Members of Parliament in fact owned enslaved people as their human property. In the 17th century, the Drax Family were part of those who pioneered the plantation model and were instrumental in developming the sugar economy. Their descendant Richard Drax, now MP for South Dorset, is ridiculously rich and was recently challenged for reparations. His family were vital to the Bajan story of enslavement. The MP was spotlighted after it was reported he had not declared his inheritance of the 617-acre land that Drax Hall (plantation) sits on.
What the Drax legacy shows is even if you remove the monarchy, we are left with the responsibility of holding Britain accountable as a colonising power, including successive governments that are elected (in the clinical sense) by the people.
Out in provincial England, these motifs are more pronounced. On my visit to Sussex in May I was met with dolphins in Brighton and their links to imperialism. Two summers ago, I was in Stroud (Gloucestershire) before the removal of Black Boy Clock. On that trip, I played cricket in a nearby village called Mirsden. On a separate trip to Gloucestershire, I went to my cousin’s wedding reception in a village called Minchinhampton … the hotel built into the hills. Inside, it was very regency and neo-empire – colonial nostalgia … warts and all.
On visits to the north of England, one instance took me and my friend Shabnam to Cumbrian village Burgh-by-Sands – home to African Romans in the third century. Near to where she used to live in Lancashire, the village Bamber Bridge was a site of domestic white terror. In 1943, white American military police stationed there would regularly brutalise Black American GIs – in fact imposing Jim Crow-esque racism on British soil.
So, there is a false perception the provincial country spaces are, as Corinne Fowler told me, a historically white space seperate from global and colonial activity and far removed from the urban. As we have seen play out, the personal costs for Black and Brown people living here are immeasurable. Corinne Fowler’s Green Unpleasant Land unpicks some of these further, while Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland’s earlier Rural Racism shows precedent.
Here, in Middle England we can see the fault lines of where Britain’s national character of so-called ‘Englishness’ is being fought. It’s in the silences to critiques of colonial statues; it’s in the poppy fascism of armistice and village war memorials – as the role of Black soldiers upsets the serene of country and rural pastures; it’s in the white identity politics of small town and village pubs; it’s the apathy to cricket being an empire sport, while the ECB claims to want to do anti-racism. As Louisa Adjoa Parker reminds us the British countryside is not excused from contemporary debates about racism: “for people of colour like myself who inhabit this green and (not always) pleasant land, there is too much we can relate to.”
As far as the monarchy, Northampton Town, where I live and grew up, is a place of special significance. The Battle of Northampton was fought in the grounds of Delapré Abbey in 1460; Elizabeth Grey, whose family lived in the village Grafton Regis just outside of Roade – loyalists to the House Lancaster – would go on to marry Edward of York (the future Edward IV) and become Queen of England. The coloniser Charles II saved the town in 1675 donating one thousand tonnes of timber from the then privately owned Salcey Forest to help rebuild All Saints Church. And the Royal Theatre (then Theatre Royal later part of The Royal & Derngate) was named for The Crown. What has often been overlooked is, while Northants has royal links, including as the ancestral seat of Lady Di, its towns and villages were home to enslavers who owned plantations and human property in the Caribbean.
Meandering the place I have called home since I was five years old, I am triggered by the rippling red, white and blue. A flag embraced by fascists being flown by organisations I thought embraced this diverse, multicultural Britain. The sort of nationalism that usually means Black and Brown people are unwelcome, followed by “go back to your shithole country.” Now thirty interviews into my PhD research, I know at one time Northampton was a town where Black children were pursued by the National Front in Far Cotton and Kingsthorpe, and Caribbean men were victim to the white terror gangs of Teddy Boys.
Uncritical engagement with monarchy brings this local and personal history back into the present day. As organisations like Northampton Museum and Royal & Derngate – two that had royal celebrations – are facilitating local replies to Windrush 75, I want to ask how much cognitive dissonance is enough for them to sleep at night? It is insincere for them to celebrate the Windrush Generation, because to do so while celebrating the monarchy is hypocritical. The Windrush Generation come from countries that were British colonies and were colonial possessions of The Crown, and in many ways still are.
At the edutainment event run by Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council in May at the WACA Centre (mentioned earlier), it was a reminder that opposition to the monarchy need not be made complicated by academic debates over history (though important). At the nucleus, it’s about unfairness. When the Queen died, Charles reportedly inherited £400m without paying the 40% inheritance tax. But if your mother died you would be told to pay it. The Crown estate is worth billions, whilst child poverty in Britain is at 4.3m.
Whilst the last twelve months has been entertainingly bleak, the levels of whiteness I have observed exhumed have shown as Afua Hirsch illustrated, this reality “in an age of branding.” One would have hoped that the death of the old guard – Elizabeth and Philip – would mean the death of the monarchy. However, no such change has come.
In his book Not the Chilcot Report, journalist and author Peter Oborne refers to Britain as a modern state with a medieval core. Whether we are talking about the monarchy banning Black or Brown staff, or Charles’ black spider memos – there is a pattern of the monarchy intervening in political issues. It was just sad that during the Jubilee, the Queen’s Funeral, and The Coronation, many journalists effectively acted as royal stenographers. In short, as 1990s big bad Will Riker said in animated series Gargoyles: “Pay a man enough and he’ll walk barefoot into hell.” Sycophantic media coverage by local and national press was galling because media and public storytelling did all the work.
Debates over asshole private landlords, unaccountable power, and the various isms are all things that permeate through The Crown. We cannot just be ambivalent to the powerful, we must be anti; this apathy to power is how deference continues. In our thinking about equality and privilege, we must also consider how the cultural mythmaking baked into storytelling helps facilitate power – why the advert of The Queen and Paddington was so effective, and why melaninated activists critiquing The Queen were seen as being violent towards a sweet old white woman: because for centuries, white women have been constructed in need of protecting from the ‘savage’ and ‘wild’ Black and Brown racial Other.
As a Black person living in Middle England, I am also grateful to have the national connections I do with other activists across the country including in Cumbria, Gloucestershire, and Sussex as well as transatlantic coalitions with New York City and Washington DC. But the local and personal battles with institutions grate on me – with celebrations of the royal institution while also parroting the language of equality.
Most interestingly, right-wing organisations are more honest about their ethos than liberal ones. As Malcolm X said, “The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor.”
The political right is honestly evil, while the liberal will do the same things but with #BlackLivesMatter and a Pride flag in their Twitter bio. One example is Charles’ guest editing of The Voice in October 2022, showing the monarchy’s commitment to handing out crumbs as a way to distract. All a front: obscured by quiche, coronation chicken, and the Tory Glasto we called The Coronation. But like Teflon, everything rolls off them.
If we are to consider this properly, we also need to stop with uncritical support of Harry & Meghan – both of whom are capitalists. Though, while both were victims of the Royal Family and the British press, Prince Harry himself was in His Majesty’s Armed Forces for ten years of his life. Furthermore, has enjoyed the privileges of a royal upbringing – including the unearned money that has come from historic pillage and plunder.
In Spare (quoted above), he presents that he is a monarchist showing how his equality work will never amount to much while serving – at least ideologically and culturally – the royal institution. Harry and Meghan are “The Neoliberal’s activists”, and at some point, we will need to have this conversation, including experiencing what my friend Sandra calls ‘growing pains’ – to describe the sensation of having the epiphany that allows us to think critically even about things we agree with. Nothing should be accepted without question.
Charles was unpopular even before he became king and between £100m and £250m was reportedly spent on his ceremony. The monarchy is the ultimate expression of inequality, who see themselves only as answerable to God. Now – amid the colliding pandemics of racism, climate change, and austerity – is the time to be thinking if we need this institution ruling over us. As teachers, doctors, university lecturers, nurses, and more are fighting for a fair wage, maybe if we put royals in a council house, they might start working? Those of us who complain, as Sara Ahmed writes, are called ‘malicious complainers.’ It is deplorable.
Partly working inside the ivory towers of the academy, I have met many scholar-activists who have the political imagination to get things moving but are met with academic gatekeeping. I have great faith in people like Rhianna Garrett (cited earlier), as well as people like Renée Landell (featured in the last essay). Further to those pushing from the outside. Iman Khan, another one of my friends doing a PhD, is a wealth of knowledge in this area. So, as long as there’s activists pushing against unaccountable power – in whatever sector or institution – there is reason to hope.
The origins of trade unionism sit in The Chartists led by William Cuffay, a Mixed Heritage Black Victorian deported to Tasmania for his beliefs. Furthermore, even prior there was The Levellers, who simply wanted to make a level playing field. The Chartists and The Levellers were the groups that came before today’s trade unions. In the Putney Debates 1647, Thomas Rainsborough stated “’The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he… every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government” – in short arguing for the vote (for men … ick … never said it was perfect). This ended with the execution of Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell rose to power crushing the forces of what today we would associate with the political left.
History rarely repeats itself, but it does rhyme. The legacy of The Chartists and The Levellers endures today. Meanwhile, our schools funnel royal stories into children’s brains, but not the stories of political agitators. If we started telling those stories, like those of The Grunwick Strikes, Matta Fancanta Youth Movement, and British Black Panthers, people would start asking uncomfortable questions about the ruling class. So, as long as we are stuck in monotonous debates about the ‘racial optics’ of looks like me politics, we are not talking about how colonialism never ended. It just shapeshifted to fit a new world.