nearly one million people descended on London on Monday to bid last goodbye of Queen Elizabeth II, including heads of state and representatives of nearly 200 governments, as well as visitors from all over Great Britain and the world. The international nature of the gathering was a testament to the Queen’s immense global soft power, the likes of which are unlikely to be rivaled by any of her successors. But it is also appropriate for the country over which she reigns. The Britain Queen Elizabeth II leaves behind is vastly more ethnically and religiously diverse than the one she inherited 70 years ago.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the population of Great Britain grew by nearly a third from approximately 50 million in 1950 to 67 million today—an increase stimulated by at least in part, due to increased immigration. As of last year, people born outside the country were 14.5% of the population, compared to just 8% in 2004.
This diversity was on full display during the period of national mourning that followed the Queen’s death. The British of all ages and backgroundsnot to mention a few tourists, could be seen paying their respects to the monarch outside Buckingham Palace and waiting for hours at the kilometer queue to see her coffin as it lies in Westminster Hall. While the death of Queen Elizabeth II represented a rare moment of national unity for many Britons, for the country’s ethnic minority communities it also invited an opportunity to reflect and take stock of the Queen’s legacy, Britain’s colonial history and what the monarchy means to them. Only 38% of non-white UK citizens want the country to remain a monarchy, according to May pollcompared to 68% of all Britons surveyed.
For Britons of ethnic minority backgrounds, whose communities span many different cultures and religions, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. For some, Queen Elizabeth II remains a beloved symbol of national unity; a British institution unto itself. For others, her 70-year legacy is impossible to distinguish from the wider monarchy – its history and its present, its good and its bad.
Walking around London in recent days, it was easy to come across those closer to the former. Raksha Sinhal, a woman of South Asian descent from Surrey, southeast England, told TIME that she came to Westminster to watch the Queen’s funeral because she wanted to pay tribute to “an incredible woman.” Regardless of the country’s colonial past, “I think the Queen is separate from that,” Sinhal says. “Yes, there was a story there. There was colonialism. But I think she made a difference and changed that.
Yusra Salih, 30, and her family attended the funeral procession with a large mosaic of the queen, featuring thousands of photographs from the queen’s life, including those of the monarch visiting her native Sudan. “We love the royal family very much,” says Salih. Despite its unpleasant colonial history in Sudan, “There are no bad feelings at all. We are Muslim, we are Arab, we are black, we are African. We are a mixed bag of things, but we feel our voices are being heard.
Support for Queen Elizabeth II was also expressed within Britain’s multi-faith communities, many of which endured special services and respect in her honor in the days leading up to her state funeral. One such event, organized by the British-Pakistani Christian Community Group in London’s St James’s Park on Sunday, drew dozens of people to take part in sermons, hymns and prayers. “She looked after everyone,” said Kamran Sohail, one of the organizers who traveled to London from Liverpool for the funeral. “She never cared what race, what color, what religion… She is truly a mother of nations.”
According to Raqib Ehsan, a social policy analyst based in Luton, England, part of the Queen’s appeal to many in the UK’s ethnic minority communities stems from her reputation for bridging divisions between Britons of different backgrounds and religions, including those who do not belong to the Anglican Church, which it leads. Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to visiting a mosque in the United Kingdom during the 2002 celebrations marking her 50th anniversary on the throne. In the same year, she made her first visit to a Hindu temple in the country. (Muslims and Hindus reconcile 4.4% and 1.3% of the British population, respectively.) “Her message of emphasizing family values, the comfort that comes from community, devotion to faith and how faith can be a source of resilience and optimism – this is not something that will only appeal to Christians “, says Ehsan, adding that “while we have to be honest about the brutality of British colonialism, we also have to recognize that the Queen has actually done significant repairs as a ceremonial figure.”
While the Queen’s death and legacy have united many Britons, for others it has only highlighted the divisions that remain in the country. Shola Moss-Shogbamimu, a London-based political activist and author of That’s why I resist, tells TIME that while she mourns Queen Elizabeth II as a person, she does not mourn the death of the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. She believes the Queen has not done much during her 70-year reign to speak out against the country’s systemic racial inequalities, both past and present. “I expect more from those with the power she had, but I didn’t see it,” says Moss-Shogbamimu. “And I don’t see it in the monarchy as an institution.”
King Charles III may yet decide to go further than his mother, both in reclaiming Britain’s colonial past and building even more bridges with the country’s ethnic minority communities. As Prince of Wales, Charles declared against “an indelible stain” left by the transatlantic slave trade, which at the time was seen as a significant step towards official recognition of Britain’s role in the period, although it failed to directly apologise. Since ascending to the throne, Charles III has also committed to protecting Britain’s diversity and its “community of communities”.
Mos-Shogbamimu said that while previous monarchs had stuck closely to their constitutional neutrality, King Charles III could and should go further. “We don’t need him to speak in words,” she says. “For whatever time he has in his reign, he has to do many things that are radically different from what his mother did, which is to keep quiet. Silence is complicity.”
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