The ascension of King Charles III has ignited a debate about the UK's imperial past -a debate that by focussing on royalty, obscures the far wider realities, complexities and responsibilities of Britain's empire. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

London is being mobbed today, September 19, 2022, by heads of state ranging from the president of the United States to the emperor and empress of Japan; from prime ministers of the Anglosphere Commonwealth to the president of South Korea.

The occasion? The funeral of the head of an archaic institution. Clearly, the British royal family continues to defy its anachronistic status: It still has real global heft. But does it have anything more?

Given the gloriously unfettered powers his ancestors wielded, it is a rough deal King Charles III has been handed. As a de jure “head of state” with no de facto political power, he is, in essence, in the same position as a eunuch overseeing a harem.

At a time when a global cacophony has arisen, in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, over the royal family’s alleged or symbolic royal guilt for the UK’s many colonial sins, this is rather lost.

Eunuchs and monarchs, republicans and democracies

Eunuchs were given charge of boudoirs for the obvious reason that they were in no position to mishandle the concubines. Similarly, constitutional monarchs in the modern European tradition are granted the trappings of power but kept well away from the levers.

Of course, there are trade-offs.

Eunuchs in the Chinese tradition had their wedding tackle removed with surgical instruments and a porcelain plug inserted into the space thus created. One may imagine, not just the psychological impact of losing one’s manhood, but the post-surgical agonies, and subsequent dangers of infection.

Not to mention the unpleasant after-effects of the process, one of which was serial incontinence, giving rise to a saying, “He stinks like a eunuch.”

The rewards, however, could be significant. Even though eunuchs were in no position to conduct romantic dalliances with the maidens of the harem, elsewhere in the palace bureaucracy, they were often granted influential positions.

If they proved popular and/or competent they were in position to amass, licitly or illicitly, significant wealth. They also benefited from the security of a position in the Forbidden City.

Monarchs in the modern, constitutional tradition seen in the UK, the Low Countries and Scandinavia – modern, liberal democracies all – are fire-walled from the workings of the governments over which they supposedly preside.

This rather obvious fact seems lost on some very, very assured social-media commentators who seem unable to look past the words “head of state” to comprehend its essential meaninglessness.

Granted, constitutional royals do undertake certain roles.

They retain the ceremonial trappings of days past – trappings that seem to fascinate many of those overseas, even in nations, such as France and the US, that delivered themselves from monarchical rule.

More important, they deliver to their countries significant diplomatic, charitable, touristic and investment-promotion benefits. Whether these monetary benefits, both direct and indirect, are worthy of their tax privileges might make for an interesting debate.

Monarchs also – as the mass emoting, and endless queues outside the queen’s coffin in recent days in the UK demonstrate – continue their passionate grips on the hearts of men. The most recent poll on the issue of royal support, in May of this year, found those favoring the monarchy to number 68%, while support for its abolition was 22%.

This makes the cries arising at present in multiple (mainly online) circles – “Now the queen is dead, the time to end the monarchy is here!” – including on these very pages – rather bizarre. In democracies, majorities matter.

So, so much for republicanism.

Imperial queen or post-imperial queen?

But there is another wave of revulsion aimed at the royals, in the form of those who see the late queen as representative of imperialism. Surely, cry such voices, it is time to stop hurting the feelings of those who suffered from British colonial misdeeds by repealing the monarchy?

Certainly, those misdeeds were mighty. Slavery and indentured labor; wars and famines; massacres and tortures; economic exploitation and political disempowerment – all are wrapped into the “C” word.

Yet these calls – bizarrely – overlook the fact that the last queen was far, far more symbolic of decolonization than colonization. This is lost in the media commentary.

 An extensive feature story in Time magazine on the queen and the empire fails to draw any direct links between the two institutions. A more historical Guardian piece notes that 17th-century royals granted charters to companies that engaged in trans-Atlantic slavery, but ignores that fact that Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria – that most imperial of British queens – was an outspoken abolitionist.

(Like similar pieces, the latter story also ignores the fact that the largest single outlay by the British government in the entire 19th century was compensating slave owners after abolition. Or that the UK aggressively deployed the superpower of the time, the Royal Navy, to destroy trans-Atlantic slavery – an action that more than any other in humanity’s history/pre-history led to the overturning of slavery as an institution worldwide.)

The magnificent pile that was Bombay Railway Station. While some Britons might like to focus on such images, they obscure the unfairness, exploitation and violence of colonial rule. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The facts are clear. Queen Elizabeth II took power in 1952, five years after the “jewel in the crown” of British imperium had become independent in 1947.

Once India was gone, the sun had set on empire. Counterinsurgency campaigns and police actions in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and Cyprus were rearguard actions as Westminster disentangled itself in a steady process of decolonization.

It is also questionable how much the royal family benefited, monetarily, from imperialism. Centuries before England stepped on to its imperial path – first in the Americas, then in Asia, finally in Africa – its royal families were enriched by their huge landholdings, and the vast chests of booty and ransoms won from France in the 100 Years War.

Of course, one might argue that this wealth should be shared with the nation, rather than remain as the preserve of the royal family.

Fair enough. But should the same principle not apply to all? What is at issue here is not royal privilege, it is the very principle of handing wealth down to a succeeding generation – that is, inheritance.

And while the royal family benefited indirectly from empire by taxation, those who benefited far, far more directly were the merchant classes (from their business dealings), and the lower upper class and the upper middle class (from their roles as administrators and conquerors/enforcers of empire).

Anglo-Indian historian Sathnam Sanghera, in his wide-ranging, well-informed and immensely readable work Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain found that slavery, at its height, was worth about 6% of the UK’s gross domestic product, while the UK drained India of between 5% and 10% of its GDP for some 200 years.

He names individuals, families, companies, sectors and even cities that benefited financially from imperialism.

In other words: Responsibility for empire is not royal. It is national.

One of the more thoughtful “anti” pieces of late appeared in The Washington Post, which – after listing a wide range of colonial-era atrocities – made the above point, noting, “as a constitutional, symbolic monarch, Queen Elizabeth bore little responsibility for the ills that occurred during her long reign. But symbols matter.”

Yet even those clamoring for an imperial royal reckoning might be surprised at some of the personal attitudes held by this particular “symbol.”

Queen Elizabeth II famously fell out with prime minister Margaret Thatcher over the latter’s refusal to sanction the apartheid government in South Africa. (Incidentally, Thatcher remained unmoved by the queen’s sentiments – showcasing the lack of influence she had over the political sphere.)

More recently, her son Charles was an early champion of a range of causes that are now leading global issues. In addition to his promotion of esthetics in modern architecture, he has promoted multi-faith multiculturalism and environmentalism. Even the most “woke” critics of royalty might concur with these agendas.

A new agenda for the UK

Still, now that he is in the hot seat – or rather, the hot throne – King Charles III is going to have to zip his lips on his pet causes. The leeway he had as king-in-waiting is far more constricted now that he is king.

Much ink has been spilled regarding the lack of popularity Charles enjoys compared with his mother, and the shabbiness of his marriage to Princess Diana. There is hope in some quarters that – maybe – popular support will ebb and the monarchy will fade into history.

Perhaps. But there are far more urgent, and weightier, matters facing today’s UK.

These include not just surging inflation, energy prices and the long hangover of Brexit, but thunderous constitutional issues – the possible departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK.

Some residents of the latter locations consider themselves victims of British imperialism. But undeniably some of the most successful, aggressive and high-profile colonial administrators and soldiers in Britain’s ex-European empire hailed from those very places.

That is just one factoid illustrating how complex an issue imperialism and post-imperialism is. If these issues are camouflaged and/or simplified simply as “royal guilt,” the wider nation – its institutions, its corporates and its citizenry – are off the hook.

For those interested, British libraries, academies and bookshops are awash with intelligent, well-researched books on every aspect of the colonial experience: from economics to administration, from cuisine to sexual relations.

But still: For the vast majority of Britons who are not specifically interested in empire, the lack of teaching about it is a dark hole in the national education system. As Sanghera justly demands in Empireland, Britain’s imperial history and its ongoing legacies need to be much better disseminated, understood and debated.

But if this is to take place, it will not come at the behest of the new king. Charles III, despite his military escorts and swank palaces, his dapper uniforms and public adulation, lacks the heft even to change school history textbooks.

That is an irony of impotence even a palace eunuch might sympathize with.

Andrew Salmon is Asia Times’ Northeast Asia editor. Follow him on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul.

Beyond the ceremonials in London, a massive debate rages about the royal family’s role in imperialism -disguising the fact that empire was a commercial, military and administrative enterprise that engaged multiple classes of Britons. Image of the late Queen Elizabeth II: BBC / Screengrab