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The Queen’s war on nationalism She was Enoch Powell's most successful adversary

The Commonwealth is her lifelong project (Kieran Doherty/Getty Images)

The Commonwealth is her lifelong project (Kieran Doherty/Getty Images)


June 8, 2022   6 mins

In the room where I write there’s a portrait that might well get me ostracised from certain intelligentsia circles to which — for the time being — I belong. Few would be in any doubt about whom it depicts. Nevertheless, a caption helpfully identifies the subject: â€œŰ§ÛŒÙ„ŰČŰšŰȘÚŸ ŰŻŰ€Ù… ÙŸŰ§Ú©ŰłŰȘŰ§Ù† کی ملکہ Û±ÛčÛ”ÛČ – Û±Ûč۔۶”. 

Wholly forgotten amid the Jubilee celebrations was the fact that, when the Queen acceded to the throne, she became sovereign not only of the UK, but also of a Muslim nation from which a million Britons like myself hail. The caption, for those who don’t read Urdu, translates as: “Elizabeth II, Queen of Pakistan 1952 – 1956.” It is the most remarkable detail in the chronicle of the Queen’s reign which began in February 1952, just as my father was born in a village in East Pakistan that through the strange meanderings of history was located in her dominions. My family’s fate has, ever since, been twinned with Her Majesty’s.

Of all the titles Elizabeth Windsor acquired on her father’s death, “Queen of Pakistan” would be the shortest-lived. The monarchy of Pakistan, founded in 1947 as a homeland for India’s down-trodden Muslims, was quickly abolished. In time, so was the country itself, most of its population seceding to form a new country (Bangladesh). Although a rump state still claims the name Pakistan, the country of my parents’ birth no longer exists. Yet its sometime sovereign, Elizabeth II, miraculously lives on — the only remnant of the original Pakistani state as it existed before its collapse in civil war and genocide.

That national failure led to my parents’ emigration to the UK, and so my family fell once again under Her Majesty’s reign. They were “New Commonwealth immigrants”. But my father was truly a New Elizabethan, among the first subjects to be born under the new Queen — and born British, since the Nationality Act of 1948 established, with astonishing magnanimity, a common citizenship for the whole British Commonwealth. Three generations of my family have been born subjects of the same Queen, while a full five generations have lived under her reign, in the UK or the erstwhile Dominion of Pakistan.

In all this time, the monarchy has been the dominant political fact in our lives. The labels on our passports — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the UK — have changed more than once; with the potential break-up of the United Kingdom they may do again. But while countries and their borders, governments and their ideologies, come and go, the one unfathomable fact that endures is the monarchy, whose legal subjects British-Asians have been ever since India was annexed more than a 150 years ago. And this legal relationship stretches back even further for those of Caribbean heritage, as far back as the 17th century.

No-one can claim the relationship began consensually. But whatever the iniquity of our initial subjection to this crown, it is that same crown that now guarantees our equality in this land. The Proclamation of 1858 that made my ancestors British granted them the exact same rights as all other subjects. It was Queen Victoria herself who had insisted on Indians “being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown”, words that would be recited by Indians at political gatherings. The principle was frequently ignored, but it was, as Gandhi put it, our Magna Carta, an assurance of equal treatment, decreed by the highest possible source, that still holds true today.

Monarchy, the philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “is the light above politics, which shines down on the human bustle from a calmer and more exalted sphere”. There’s something strangely celestial about that description, but he was onto something. As Shakespeare observed, “there’s such divinity doth hedge a king”. Elizabeth II is Dei Gratia Regina (“Queen by the grace of God”) and as even the imam of Cambridge mosque preached on Friday, “she is a servant of the Almighty Allah”. If, in our secular age, there can no longer be God-given rights, the monarchy’s pompous charade of divinity makes it the closest thing we have to an absolute — and that is what I’d like my rights to be.

Minorities don’t trust the “human bustle” — which is all we would have without a monarch. From history we learn that wherever a throne is eliminated, in due course so are ethnic minorities. Consider the multiculturalism of Mitteleuropa under the Habsburgs or of southeastern Europe under the Ottomans. A dozen languages were spoken in the imperial parliament in Vienna, while on any given day in an Istanbul cafe conversations could be heard in Turkish, Ladino, Greek, Armenian, French and Kurdish, at least. But since republican governments replaced these monarchies, the fate of every 20th-century cosmopolis on the continent has been one of merciless homogenisation through ethnic cleansing, population transfers or socio-economic strangulation.

There’s a kneejerk association of monarchy with nationalism. But the two have mostly been pitted against each other since the imperial age in which European monarchies transformed into continent-spanning empires characterised, especially in the British case, by free trade and free movement. Nationalists opposed the cosmopolitanism and pluralism of these empires, eventually corralling their multiethnic populations into new nation-states, republics in the main, which now struggle to cope with a fraction of the ethnic diversity that their territories previously boasted under imperial rule.

Conservatives today won’t own up to a truth of which they should be proud: the original basis of our multicultural society was the imperialist, royalist ideology of High Toryism. This becomes clear from the debate around the Nationality Act of 1948 that enabled my father’s emigration. It was then the Conservatives who worried about Labour reforms destroying “our proud boast of the open door in this country to people from all the colonies”. The parliamentary statement by Lord Kilmuir, as Shadow Home Secretary, deserves quoting at length:

We deprecate any tendency to differentiate between different types of British subjects in the United Kingdom. We feel that when they come to the UK there ought to be an open door and reception for every type
We must maintain our great metropolitan tradition of hospitality to everyone, from every part of the empire.

What united — and still unites — all these disparate people is the Queen, mere loyalty to whom makes us all British. Our oath of allegiance is to “Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors” — no more, no less. The symbolism of that is profound. It means my mother, a hijab-wearing Bengali Muslim woman who speaks little English can be unimpeachably British in a way she could not be unimpeachably French (even her clothing would not be deemed in keeping with “Republican values”). The simplicity of our oath is one of our constitution’s forgotten jewels, its tolerant spirit generally diffused throughout the state — a state that isn’t truly a nation-state since it claims four different “home nations”. Apart from Scotland, all have an underwhelming sense of nationality. As Daniel Defoe’s ditty scorning English nationalism went:

A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.

By contrast, the nation-states born of decolonisation in the last century demand of its citizens fealty to a nation, that nation commonly being defined in ethnically exclusive terms. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Roma minority that once had only to express loyalty to the emperor is under pressure to become Hungarian. These are societies at the mercy of ethnonationalism and xenophobia, lacking that impartial light of monarchy which, at its best, allows people of all races and religions to appeal to something beyond their differences from one another.

These unstable political forces haven’t been totally absent even in our tolerant monarchy. In 1968, targeting East African Indians, the Labour government consciously restricted dark-skinned British passport-holders from entering the country, legislation which even the anti-immigrant firebrand Enoch Powell considered, in some of its clauses, to be comparable to the Nuremberg Laws. Still, shortly afterwards, Powell made the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that made him the biggest name in UK politics.

Powell envisioned a renewed English nationalism, which arose from a disillusioned critique of imperialism not unlike those taking place in former colonies. He came to believe that the foreign adventure of empire — Powell was a veteran of the Indian Army — had suppressed English identity. Decolonisation was an occasion to rediscover it, as if it were an old oak in an abandoned garden. He railed against the “bogus mythical self-consoling invention of the British Commonwealth”, against the Queen’s new role as its Head, and of course against Commonwealth immigrants. The irony is that Powell could have made the same arguments as an Indian, say, and been regarded as a fairly standard postcolonial polemicist.

Queen Elizabeth deserves credit as probably Powell’s most successful adversary in those turbulent decades. She single-handedly preserved the old imperial High Toryism which Powell and later Tories had turned against, using her charm to launder out of it the darker stains of imperialism. Whereas for Powell, the nation-state was “the ultimate political reality”, for Elizabeth it was the British Empire in its new, egalitarian guise, the Commonwealth. In her famous broadcast on her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth pledged her life to serving “all the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire, wherever they live, whatever race they come from, and whatever language they speak”.

Of course, the Queen never addressed him directly, but she was shadow-boxing against Powell’s English nationalism. Powell’s ravings grew more virulent. “It is truly when he looks into the eyes of Asia that the Englishman comes face to face with those who would dispute with him the possession of his native land,” Powell would bellow. But all the while, Elizabeth would reaffirm her own commitment “to that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races”.

Eventually, Powell’s decorum yielded. In 1984, he attacked Queen Elizabeth — from a family of immigrants herself — using a phrase that would later be invoked, knowingly or otherwise, by Theresa May: “citizen of nowhere”. She was, Powell claimed, more concerned for “a vociferous minority of newcomers than for the great mass of her subjects
threatening the place of the Crown in the affections of the people” — a prediction that was utterly refuted by the jubilant Union Jack-waving of millions over the holiday.

Like most, at times I found myself chafing against the kitschier aspects of the spectacle. But then, when I saw the circle of saffron-robed sadhus from Gujarat at Neasden’s Hindu temple ignite a sacred flame in honour of the Queen, I remembered all over again what the lighting of all those beacons truly symbolised: a celebration by our motley, many-hued human bustle of the light that shines above it.


Tanjil Rashid is a freelance writer.

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Mark Turner
Mark Turner
2 years ago

Nicely written piece, but you are wearing somewhat rosetinted spectacles if you think that the majority of Muslim immigrants to this country think along similar lines to you. One only has to look at the crowds celebrating in Central London, a city now composed of nearly 50% foreign immigrants, mainly african and asian and notice how this fact was NOT reflected in the makeup of the crowds….indeed, up North, during the celebrations, one council leader, from your same background, chose to fly the palestinian flag over the town hall, while Yassminn Abdel-Mageid railed against the “Nightmare of Union Jack flags everywhere..” Also, in your piece you let slip your mother barely speaks English and wears the hijab…this is somewhat worrying ( but indicative of the issue here) after 3 generations in this country that enough of our culture has not trickled down to make this backward medieval practice outdated amongst British muslims…….The issue sadly is that the majority do not want to take on our values and culture alongside their own, prefering instead to remain in the closed communities and complaining about basic British freedoms such as being able to go and watch a film of controversial subject matter…see cineworld capitulating to menacing mobs of hate filled muslims complaining about the showing of Lady of heaven……
I have lived in Tower Hamlets for 30 years, NONE of the muslim mothers spoke to my wife and the several other only white skinned mothers throughout the whole schooling of my children and last we week we attended a muslim wedding of a friend of ours…..my wife and her friend were separated and made to sit alone downstairs, none of the muslim women their spoke to them, indeed they moved away. Its this kind of behaviour that speaks volumes.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mark Turner
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Turner

They now have ‘critical mass’ as Powell predicted, so why should they change? This will end in tears..

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Turner

Why on earth do you still abide there?

Joseph Allchin
Joseph Allchin
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Turner

My experience of living in a diverse London neighbourhood of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and whites is that everyone gets along and indeed the Asians are much friendlier and participate more in the civic life of the community. They did more to organise our Jubilee street party and we were all grateful for the food. Some of the ladies don’t speak good English, but you know they care and show an interest despite the language barrier. I’m not a multi-culti libtard, I’m just describing the reality as I’ve experienced it.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

What on earth did Clement Attlee & Co think they were doing enacting the 1948 Nationality Act?
Planting a Utopian time bomb that they would never see explode?
However it is pleasing to read that at least someone still regards the Empire with affection,I thank you.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

I stopped reading when the author attacked the English. He and his foreign compatriots are welcome to Britishness, which has been lost to the people of these islands decades ago. That identity is hollow and empty. The English however, will continue as they always have.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

There must be an awful lot of people in Britain who only have to look back at, say, their grandparents generation to see that they’re descended from the English, Irish and Scots (I don’t think I have any Welsh). What do they think of themselves as, if not British?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

The latter two call themselves British when convenient, whilst the English with extraordinary generosity subsidise both, but hopefully for not much longer.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

The English subsidise British people of Irish and Scottish descent? Including those born in England?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

No, only those living in either of those ‘Gaelic Paradises’, currently known as Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Martin Wolf
Martin Wolf
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

England has existed for at most 1,200 years. That is most definitely not “always”.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Wolf

For me ‘always’ is the same as time immemorial, otherwise known as 1189 AD. The concept of English and an England existed for centuries prior to the unification of the country by Wessex. It’s closer to 1500 years.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

What’s 1189 got to do with it, besides the accession of Richard I?

Tony Reardon
Tony Reardon
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

In English law and its derivatives, “time immemorial” means the same as “time out of mind”,”a time before legal history and beyond legal memory”. In 1275, by the first Statute of Westminster, the time of memory was limited to the reign of King Richard I, beginning 6 July 1189.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Reardon

Thank you.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

If the author’s co-religionists became a majority in the UK they would abolish the monarchy. Enough of this nonsense!

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Plenty of Muslim nations with monarchies.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Mostly dreamt up by us!

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

Quite but none of the monarchs wear a cross do they?

Joseph Allchin
Joseph Allchin
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

If you want to maintain Britain as a Christian country, it won’t be the Muslims standing in your way but the indigenous population, who have abandoned Chrstianity. I don’t see why Muslims would be hostile to the monarchy. Unbelievable numbers of them fought loyally for the King in both world wars.

Michael 0
Michael 0
2 years ago

I fail to see anything wrong with Powell stating that the British had just as much right to a homeland as any other people on Earth. This if anything shows the lack of spine of the Queen, that she just sat and watched her nation’s identity be eroded into nothing.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael 0

Powell’s estimates were actually lower than the real numbers would turn out to be, as far as I recall.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael 0

Given our idiosyncratic constitution she couldn’t have done anything anyway, and was probably keen to avoid the fate of her uncle, Edward VIII. Perhaps fortuitously her main obsessions seem to be, and in no particular order, horses, dogs (Corgis) Balmoral and her gas bills.

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael 0

Yes, her much vaunted silences have spoken volumes as to her inability to bolster national pride. Single-handedly, she has presided over devaluing of this country’s flag, heraldic traditions and emblems etc. When asked to head a national day of prayer as in her father’s reign during a different time of crisis, she has remained mute. So much for the head of the CofE,

Ballantrae
Ballantrae
2 years ago

This is a very heart-warming tale of this country’s openess to the World, and like you I was very pleased and proud to see, for example, the ethnic mix in the household regiments during the trooping of the colour: a very visible challenge to those who claim, repeatedly, that we are a hateful racist country. However, I’m not sure being bound by the oath of allegiance is enough to keep us all together: why, for example, does your mother speak little English? Don’t you think that this excludes her from being a full member of society, and is a daily reminder to you that you came from “outside”?

Sam Burton
Sam Burton
2 years ago
Reply to  Ballantrae

I wonder how many British personnel made the effort to speak the local language when they lived on the Indian sub-continent?
On the same subject, I frequently visit France and Germany and am never surprised to witness how the vast majority of our British visitors make no effort whatsoever to speak the local language when they visit. When it comes to French, most of us had to study it as a compulsory subject at school and for many of us, German was also part of the school curriculum.
It appears to me that part of being a good ‘Brit’ is to be reluctant to speak a second language.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Burton
Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

Perhaps one reason is the ascension of English to become the lingua franca of many parts of the world. Besides, you can hardly expect anyone on holiday to manage more than a few essential phrases to get by, especially if they visit multiple countries, each with their own language.

If, however, you speak only English and move to another country to seek work, especially starting at the bottom in the host society, you would enhance your chances of success by learning the language of said host. Works both ways.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Joseph Allchin
Joseph Allchin
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

Enoch Powell actually did learn the local language as did countless Britishers in the Indian army and government. But you’re right that most wouldn’t have.

Joseph Allchin
Joseph Allchin
2 years ago
Reply to  Ballantrae

I have neighbours who don’t speak much English but who are much better neighbours and citizens than white indigenous people in the community. My Pakistani neighbours are always offering food and favours (tidying up the garden etc) while the English people on my street do f-all…though I can see them at the pub. Ultimately I’d say the sense community and common civic identity and pride is pretty equal between the whites and the Pakistanis even if the latter’s language skills are low.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

Enjoyed this very much. A side of postwar history I knew very little about, and pleasing to think.

Richard 0
Richard 0
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

I too enjoyed reading thus. Might not agree with everything the author writes but it is thought-provoking and well written. Thank you.

danni baylees
danni baylees
2 years ago

Democracy and freedom is also part of being British but read the news on Cineworld and you’ll see that some don’t respect freedom

Amelia
Amelia
2 years ago

using modern merit (universalism) to justify an old sin (colonialism) is a novel but appalling idea.