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Opinion | The Imperial Fictions Behind the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Were empire thrown overboard, much of the monarchy’s symbolic power would have gone with it. From her first prorogation of Parliament, Queen Elizabeth II, like her predecessors, affirmed old imperial fictions and cultivated new ones. This was her prescribed role, her monarchical duty. She reminded her grieving nation of its imperial greatness and the sacrifices being made to save empire from encroaching terrorism in the empire. “In Malaya,” she declared, “My Forces and the civil administration are carrying out a difficult task with patience and determination.”

This difficult task, meant to suppress an anticolonial, communist insurgency, included mass detention without trial, illegal deportations and one of the empire’s largest forced migrations, moving hundreds of thousands of colonial subjects into barbed-wire villages. Many lived in semi-starvation, under 24-hour guard, and were forced to labor and abused.

Liberal imperialism endured, however, its elasticity giving rise to new lexicons for reform. Colonial subjects were being “rehabilitated” in an unprecedented “hearts and minds” campaign. Updated postwar humanitarian laws and new human rights conventions — legally and politically problematic, particularly on Britain’s widespread use of torture — partly prompted such doublespeak while British governments repeatedly denied repressive measures, secretly ordering wide-scale destruction of incriminating evidence.

Reformist fictions laundered Britain’s past, watermarking official narratives of end-of-empire conflicts in Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Fragments of damning evidence remain, however. Historians, myself included, have spent years reassembling them, demonstrating liberal imperialism’s perfidity and the ways in which successive monarchs manifestly performed the empire and its myths, drawing symbolic power from their sublime in loco parentis role civilizing colonial subjects while — perhaps unwittingly given their governments’ cover-ups — honoring the dishonorable with speeches, titles and medals.

In 1917, for instance, King George V introduced the Order of the British Empire, celebrating civilian and military service with the Knight and Dame Grand Cross (GBE) the highest-ranking honor. The Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) is the lowest, with three others in between. To this day, the queen still confers hundreds of these medals annually, which continue to bear the motto “FOR GOD AND THE EMPIRE,” the two wellsprings of monarchical power.

Such conferrals are inherently political gestures. One case among many was in 1950s Kenya where Britain detained without trial over one million Africans during the Mau Mau Emergency. Terence Gavaghan, the architect of the “dilution technique,” or systematized violence used to “break” detainees, was awarded an MBE. John Cowan, his lieutenant, was also given one despite, or because of, his role in crafting the “Cowan Plan,” which led to the beating deaths of 11 detainees. Known as the Hola Massacre, it threatened the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan, who wrote to the queen in 1959 that the “incident” was by no means “excused,” though Her Majesty’s Government “can hardly be held responsible for the faults of commission or omission of quite minor officials.”

Scapegoating tactics and royal affirmations of empire’s nefarious agents were long part of Britain’s modus operandi, as was developmentalist language masquerading as benign reform. When independence swept through the empire in the 1960s, colonies were “growing up,” according to Macmillan. Britain declared its civilizing mission a triumph, and the Commonwealth of Nations, today comprising 54 countries, most of which are former British colonies, the logical coda.

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