Queen leaves UK still divided by class and with Kenyan blood on its hands

Queen Elizabeth

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II leaves Westminster Abbey in central London following the Royal Maundy Service on April 21, 2011. 

Photo credit: Leon Neal | AFP

Elizabeth Windsor, otherwise known as Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was loved by her subjects. They called her the matriarch of the realm. She lived for so long that the majority of them knew no other sovereign. The story of her life has been told repetitively by fawning British commentators incapable of uttering a critical word about her.

The House of Windsor is the ultimate dynasty. In a modern world which has become egalitarian, the institution of monarchy is an anachronism. That hereditary accidents of birth can determine the destiny of individuals and nations is outdated.

British society has a very rigid class system. That is the most regrettable attribute of that country. Like caste is to India, so is class to Britain. Social status means everything. If you are born of the great aristocratic and landed families, you have a life of privilege as your due.

You will most likely be enrolled in elite Eton or Harrow schools. You stand a far better chance than a commoner of being admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. When you graduate you'll probably be fast-tracked for a prestigious government or diplomatic job, or one in London's financial district. Life is not a lottery for you. It's pre-ordained. From birth to death.

That heredity and birth status can play such an outsized role in a society is antithetical to today's values. It's unfair and entrenches gross inequality. Expansion of higher education and the democratisation of business opportunities certainly have contributed to an improved meritocratic English society, yet the class structure remains stubbornly intact.

House of Lords

In fact the titles of the peerage (the so-called nobility) read like the medieval era: dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, barons. These aristocrats and their heirs were entitled to sit in the unelected House of Lords in perpetuity. Until prime minister Tony Blair changed the rules in 1999 in favour of "Life peers," who are appointed by the government but cannot pass on their titles. Mark you, the House of Lords is not impotent. It can amend or delay legislation passed by the House of Commons.

The British monarchy sits at the apex of this overarching class hierarchy. It is both its rock and pillar. In turn the aristocracy is the monarchy's shield and defender. It will do everything to protect royalty and privilege. The monarch is far from just being ceremonial. She has quiet influence over prime ministers and via shadowy state bodies like the Privy Council. Palace courtiers also exert sway across the bureaucracy.

The royal family is of course fabulously wealthy, much as they try to keep that under wraps. Their best-known asset is the Crown Estate, one of the UK's biggest property portfolios (approximate value: £16.5 billion). It's administered by the government on the monarch's behalf. In return, the monarch gets 25 per cent of the estate's annual profits, called the Sovereign Grant.

There's also the Duchy of Lancaster, a private estate held in trust for the reigning sovereign. It consists of 45,550 acres holdings, urban developments and commercial properties, which were last valued at £818 million. There's another trust property called the Duchy of Cornwall which the eldest son of a monarch inherits.

 Much of this 135,000-acre estate comprises of farmland, but also includes homes and commercial properties – all worth £1 billion. The royal family gets princely incomes from the two duchies, without touching the underlying capital. Only from 1992 did the royals start paying taxes.

Queen's State funeral

The Royal family has many other valuable assets. Of the two dozen or so palaces and royal residences across the UK, Elizabeth counted two as her personal property: Sandringham estate and Balmoral castle (where she died). Never mind that the residences are maintained by taxpayers. The government will foot the cost of the Queen's State funeral, naturally. It also does so for the occasional extravagant royal wedding, even of minor royals.

Elizabeth was known to have a huge porfolio of private investments (some offshore), a treasure of precious jewels (excluding the Crown Jewels), priceless artworks, thoroughbred racehorses, and a £100 million stamp collection. Ah, those horses. And Elizabeth's corgi dogs. They were truly the love of her life.

Charles III, Elizabeth's heir, would do well to copy the relative frugality of Scandinavian royalty and downsize the monarchy. This will align better with Britain's diminished economic circumstances. In the past he has hinted he prefers a slimmed down circle of "working" royals rather than the sprawling and expensive establishment his mother kept, comprising her children, grandchildren and cousins. Above all, Charles should modernise the monarchy – if he can't scrap it altogether. The stuffiness and archaic pageantry all need to go.

Charles should also discard his late mother's sentimentality over the Commonwealth. The ex-colonies no longer find the body terribly useful. It has lost relevance – except perhaps in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Even the Caribbean statelets who looked up to the British monarch as head of state are pulling away. Barbados recently declared itself a republic. Jamaica and Bahamas intend to follow suit. The breakup of the UK itself is possible if a push in Scotland for independence succeeds.

Clueless as ever, Uhuru Kenyatta has lavished praise on Elizabeth, which is okay at a personal level, without any acknowledgement of the horrible atrocities Britain committed in colonial Kenya. You can't separate the empire she represented from its legacy of colonial repression, exploitation and concentration camps. Nine months after Elizabeth first visited Kenya in 1952, a State of Emergency was declared and a period of imperial terror got unleashed.


Supreme Court, stop being prima donnas. Katiba grants freedom to speak, to insult also. Social media regularly roasts presidents and even the Pope. Drop the hubris. Grow thick skins.


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