What Magdalen College students get wrong
It is bizarre in the extreme to focus criticism of empire on the Crown
The news that the MCR [Middle Common Room postgraduates] committee of Magdalen College Oxford on 7 June 2021 put forward a motion to remove a print of a 1952 portrait of the new Queen Elizabeth II on the grounds that “The Queen represents an institution responsible for much of colonialism throughout history and the modern era, and these depictions cause some students discomfort” has been defended by the President of Magdalen, Dinah Rose, on the grounds of “free speech and political debate.” It was just as well that she did not say historical accuracy, because the motion reflected singularly little understanding either of Britain’s imperial history or of the monarchy.
If by empire, the motion-makers meant the extension of British power outside Europe, then the monarchy played singularly little role in the process. And understandably so. For dynastic, power-political and religious reasons, English, Scottish and British monarchs were primarily concerned with the British Isles and Continental Europe. Indeed, there was frequent complaint about a focus on wars on the Continent rather than looking for prospects outside Europe. It was no accident that the major British expedition to the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, the Western Design that led to the seizure of Jamaica, was mounted not by James I and Charles, neither of which had wished to offend Spain, but rather Oliver Cromwell. William III, who came to the throne in 1689, focused on resisting Louis XIV of France on the Continent as did the Whig government under Queen Anne. George I and George II were more concerned about Hanover than empire.
By the time imperial expansion was to the fore, the monarchy was less potent, first in George III’s later years, and then under George IV. Thereafter, it was clearly a case of parliamentary-accountable ministries that was to the fore rather than the Crown, and notably so through the long years of imperial expansion. Under these circumstances, it is bizarre in the extreme to focus criticism of empire on the Crown. Instead, it has been successive monarchs over the last 150 years who, alongside ministries at home and abroad, have helped take empire into the more democratic forms of Dominions and Commonwealth. In the age of modern empires, the British empire has been particularly ready to make the transition to democratic rule, an example to which the role of monarchy within Britain owes much. It is a great pity that most recent and contemporary empires have lacked or lack that willingness.
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