The Passing of an Era

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The death of Queen Elizabeth II marked the passing of an era in British and world history.  

Elizabeth II, who first became queen when Winston Churchill was prime minister in 1952, carried the British monarchy through the turbulent twentieth and early twenty-first centuries until her death on Sept. 8. 

Not only that, Elizabeth II provided a critical link to the past with dignity and grace that was respected and admired, even by many outside the U.K. She provided the best example of what an “elite” can be. 

“A lot of elite in other societies, they are elites, when they dictate the polity of a country, but they don’t really actively take part,” said Sumantra Maitra, a national security fellow at the Center for the National Interest and associate fellow at the Royal Historical Society in the U.K. “But the royals have to serve. The queen served in the Second World War. All her sons, our current king, essentially, he served as well in the Navy. William and Harry, they served.” 

It is notable that while so many pay their respects to Elizabeth II, there is a general trend in the West to reject its own history, its own traditions in the name of purifying the past. False narratives based on faulty history are now used to diminish what many in America, the U.K., and the West once paid tribute to in their history. Ultimately, Maitra said, this “breaks the love for the future generations to come and feel anything traditional or anything that’s connected to their own past.” 

Maitra joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the war on history, and more. 

Jarrett Stepman: This is Jarrett Stepman from The Daily Signal. I’m reporting from the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida. And I am joined, I’m happy to be joined, by Sumantra Maitra, who is a fellow for national security at the Center for the National Interest. Thank you so much for joining us here.

Sumantra Maitra: Thank you very much for having me.

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Stepman: Oh, you’re quite welcome. And I think the first thing I really want to talk about is, you wrote a great piece in The National Interest about the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, which I read, I thought was excellent. You brought up some great points about the passing of a romantic era in monarchy.

And I realize that for our mostly American audience, of course, we always have a mixed feeling about the monarchy in general, as small-R republicans. But I think a lot of Americans saw the outpouring, of course, of affection for Queen Elizabeth II and saw really the passing of maybe a generation of people before.

Can you talk to us about that piece and what this means for Great Britain?

Maitra: First of all, thank you very much. I mean, that’s very kind. There is always an inherent contradiction and tension between the two different visions of conservatism, one an agrarian society with a patrician class and senatorial class on top, which is the American model or the republican role model, whichever way you want to talk about, and the other is the, obviously, throne and altar monarchy.

It might be different superficially, but there are also inherent themes in both of those visions. Both of them like tradition. Both of them despise modernity that way.

So I think when the American conservatives see the monarchy in U.K., obviously, the historical disagreements might be there, but they still see that there is this tradition which is being carried on. And I think that appeals to a lot of Americans as well.

Obviously, I live in America, so it’s kind of a mixed feeling for me too. But I totally understand why it’s appealing to Americans. I mean, I read somewhere that royal news is read more in U.S. than in the U.K., now, partly because U.S. is massive, but also, I mean, there is something in it.

Stepman: It makes sense. I think it’s notable for Americans to see, really, a stateswoman of grace and dignity in a time, especially when you consider modernity. To Americans, we see almost the queen as almost like a national celebrity, but one who brings that kind of honor and dignity and grace to the position.

And I think, especially as a conservative, there is something admirable, remarkable about simply upholding this tradition, the liberties that the British people have, while preserving the monarchy, when we see so many other countries—of course, the French Revolution being the most dramatic example of lopping off the king’s head and a bloodbath that followed. There were a lot of other people that died, and tyranny came in its wake. That the British have been able to kind of meld the system and further that in the modern world, I think, makes it stark.

I mean, when you think of the greatness of the British Empire, you think of the monarchy, you think of all these things that have survived modernity. And I think a lot of people feel that Queen Elizabeth brought it into that.

Of course, I suppose the question that’s next is, what’s going to happen when she’s not there? What is the future for British monarchy when they don’t have somebody like that who can carry on the tradition in the same way?

Maitra: I think two things on that, I mean, you’re absolutely right about the queen coming from a generation which, essentially, ties to a past we can’t even imagine.

If you think of it through, the first prime minister the queen saw was Winston Churchill, who was born in the Victorian times, at the peak of the British Empire. I mean, just the span of 1874 to 2022 is more than a hundred years. Right? So that’s one thing.

One of the things, what the Americans see, like the queen herself, and that’s part of the royalty business in U.K., if you are a royal, you have to serve in the armed forces. A lot of elite in other societies, they are elites when they dictate the polity of a country, but they don’t really actively take part. But the royals have to serve.

The queen served in the Second World War. All her sons, our current king, essentially, he served as well in the Navy. William and Harry, they served. So I think those are also some of the things to think about.

As for the future of the monarchy, I think it’s something to do with the Anglican temperament of Bilbo Baggins and all that stuff. People don’t really like warfare and revolutions. We always hear from other countries around England that England would be good with a republic, but the last time England was a republic, it really went bad for Ireland and France. So we don’t want that to happen again.

But overall, I think monarchy is going to face a little bit of … At the end of the day, it’s a romantic aesthetic. Right? I mean, you have feudal sentiments, the liege lord, the king leading the country to war, that kind of stuff. Different generations, people don’t really feel that kind of grand ideas anymore. The mystic chords are kind of broken.

Obviously, Britain is not the British Empire. There are no imperials who are in South Africa or India or Australia. I think some of the Commonwealth dominions might be one to be a republic. As for the monarchy, I think it’s probably still going to stay, in England at least, or even in the United Kingdom, but it’s going to be diminished like the European royalties. I mean, Kingdom of Sweden. We don’t really talk about Sweden being a kingdom, but it is a kingdom, at the end of the day.

So I think that would be a little bit of diminished roles, but I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I think the British people like monarchy, anyway.

Stepman: That makes sense. I think it’s interesting how much this ties into a topic, I think, that we’ve both touched in our writings, which is, kind of, especially in the West, there’s a kind of war on history and tradition, and you’ve seen it being—

Maitra: Oh, I’m a huge fan of your book. Yeah.

Stepman: Thank you very much. I wrote “The War on History,” which is roiling not just the United States, but throughout the West. I mean, you could even say maybe the United States has given the world some of this disease, parts of the West.

But this does seem to be a problem everywhere, where we see an active overturning of our traditions, where we came from; where a lot of young Americans, a lot of young people, either don’t know their traditions whatsoever, they’re completely detached or actively hostile.

Do you see that being as deep of a problem in the U.K. and throughout Europe as it is here in the United States? Where do you see that taking? Where’s that next step going?

Maitra: I think there are two points to that statement. One, which obviously, you know more than me, higher education. One of the curses of higher education being mass produced and mass elite, overproduction of elite is the quality goes down. Right?

I mean, I am an associate fellow of the Royal Historical Society and just in my own field, the department of history, for example, in different countries, if someone is working on fleet tactic during the First World War, he’s also a First World War historian. If someone is working on rhetoric of letters from the trench, he’s also a First World War historian.

At the end of the day, when they’re going to a university, they are fighting for the same job. Right? And given how scholarships and funding works, probably the second guy is getting the job. Right?

So the quality of history, the quality, the rigor of academia, the kind of research that comes out of historical departments goes down, on one hand.

Second, because those things are going down, because these are the people who are then going and producing the narrative, producing the thought content, shaping the future generations, so to speak, that’s just bad history.

I mean, the 1619 Project happening in the U.S., written by someone who’s not even a historian and that there are genuine historians who opposed to it, they’re not getting TV talk times. And these are the projects that are getting funded, then tenure in universities. And this is how narrative is shaped.

And that, obviously, breaks the love for the future generations to come and feel anything traditional or anything that’s connected to their own past.

History as a subject is probably going to continue outside academia, as far as I can see. I mean, I think, at this point in time, there needs to be a counter movement of genuine history, which is happening outside, where there’s this gatekeeping going on, but there are pretty dark times ahead.

Stepman: It is amazing to me to think about, especially when people, especially when they talk about offensive history or statues, and they say, “Well, put it in a museum.” And I have to say, “Well, what are the museums going to teach?” And I think that’s where a lot of people think, “Well, what are we going to do?”

But at the same time, the amount of information out there is more than at any point in history. It’s available. You can go to a bookstore. You can go on a website and find this information. You be can become self-educated in a way that was absolutely impossible.

I mean, that’s the positive side of modernity, is there is a lot of, I think, yearning for these things—especially as the institutions in the lead have become completely corruptedfrom the outside to educate yourself, to understand, “Hey, this is where we came from. These people are wrong.”

A lot of the official position seems to be, I mean, you even see a lot of historians, I think, to a certain extent, have even tarnished their names because they’re willing to jump aboard things like the 1619 Project because they think they will get media attention, they think they will get accolades. They’ve really watered down the reputation of their profession. And now people are looking elsewhere.

And it feels like we’re at a time where that information is out there if you’re willing to seek that. Maybe that’s the next step into creating some kind of revival of the traditions.

Maitra: One of the things which is interesting for a historian to think through is, when you figure out the broad themes of how narrative is shaped in a country, there is this force toward egalitarianism, of course.

Now, egalitarianism doesn’t mean that everyone gets equally educated or equally wise. The wisdom doesn’t translate in equality. What happens is people form their silos.

So what’s happening with extreme spread of knowledge—and initially, if you see any high civilization in human history, whether it’s the Mughals or the Romans or the Greek or British Empire or America and the WASP-y Protestant ways in 1890s, there was this superstructure. The superstructure had the intelligence, had the wisdom to understand the history, to translate that.

I mean, history has forever been a fight between the type of history that Herodotus would’ve written, which is more narrative and shaping a story, or Thucydides, which is more neutral.

Now, there has been this huge idea of neutrality and detached aspiration toward detached history. But that, obviously, is going down now. We are going back to an old-school, narrative-shifting kind of history.

But the problem is, obviously, everyone is biased. Humans have their own biases, but if you even don’t aspire to have a kind of detached neutrality, you are not writing a story that will not be thrown down tomorrow. There is no reality. It’s a war on reality itself.

If you do not even think that there needs to be at least some kind of checks and balances to figure out that the claims that you’re making have any empirical basis, there is no story. And the moment a nation has no story to tell, if it’s the moment a nation has no positive story to tell, their ties, it gets fractured. So I think that’s a huge threat, essentially.

The 1776 department, I think, in Hillsdale, they’re doing really good stuff about promoting an alternate version of history. I think that’s the only way to do, provide that, “Hey, everything is not just bad. There are other ways.”

And we actually have a really good history. People are not—they were not perfect in history, but they gave the ideas that form, the basis of future improvement. And that’s a great thing.

Stepman: Yeah. I think that’s one thing I always note, when you point out the flaws in the history of the West and the United States, a lot of these people haven’t studied the rest of human history.

Maitra: No.

Stepman: They haven’t studied the rest of the world. And I think there’s a lot of shocking things. Again, that’s part of the lack of knowledge, I think, from society, that now all the criticism, that’s all we get now. I mean, in the West, we’re very self-critical, but now that’s all you’re getting.

Maitra: Yeah.

Stepman: And when you give that to a general audience and they think, “Well, why do we have all these things? Are these things all bad? Are they corrupt?” And we do have a lot of great things, obviously. There’s just no question about that. But when you lose connection to that, you lose connection to what made your society great. You have no way forward.

Maitra: I totally agree.

Stepman: Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate you coming on—

Maitra: Absolutely.

Stepman: … “The Daily Signal Podcast” and hope you come on again.

Maitra: Thank you so much.

Stepman: Thank you.

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