Like someone with a cat allergy as incurable as their love of cats, the Queen brings my dad out in a rash. So overwhelmed with joy is he when he sees his monarch that he promptly bursts into tears. Official birthdays, Queen’s speeches, London Fashion Week—he’s hysterical. He gets it from his dad, an ex-Major General in the British Raj and a staunch (if less blubbering) patriot. But dad’s reaction isn’t just inherited: it’s Jewish.
I used to think that British Jewry’s soft spot for the same monarchy that expelled us in 1290 followed a logic similar to negging: the more they hate us, the more we love them. That is, until I realized its utter pragmatism. “Seek peace in the city where you live,” Jeremiah advised the Israelites exiled in Babylon, “for its peace is your peace.” In our weekly Prayer for the Royal Family, Jews petition their rulers to “deal kindly and justly with the House of Israel.” Like any sensible immigrants, we’re praying not to be kicked out again.
“One, two, three shovels, then everyone claps,” says Attenborough, in one of his wryer voiceovers.
Of course, Jewish royalism is as much about assimilating as it is about ingratiating. If you are a sentient being, you will have noticed that our country is in the throes of a particularly nasty strain of Royal Fever brought on by an impeccably-scheduled double bill of baby and wedding. Even traditionally republican outlets like The Guardian have succumbed, with round-the-clock coverage of the imminent consolidation of hereditary monarchy. Yet the terrifying extent of the virus was only fully revealed a few weeks ago when five million of our compatriots sat down to watch Her Majesty give David Attenborough a tour of her back garden. At first blush, The Queen’s Green Planet, aired on ITV on April 16, is a cross between MTV’s Cribs and Blue Planet. On closer inspection, it turns out to be an hour-long ad for the Queen’s latest pet project.
“Her Majesty loves trees,” gushes Attenborough. She plants one wherever she goes, and has the routine down to a T: “One, two, three shovels, then everyone claps,” says Attenborough, in one of his wryer voiceovers. Launched in 2015 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta, the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy (QCC) seeks to share the love, uniting the Commonwealth through a global network of—you guessed it. The Queen’s dendrophilia is going global.
Naturally it is Angelina Jolie—an apostle of the QCC sent to bring the good news to Namibia—who asks the most salient question of the evening. “Why,” she wonders, as the winds of the Namib flap against her unbearably perfect cheekbones, “does the Queen of England care about planting trees in Africa?” The answer the QCC’s website offers is an environmental one: she wants to “link all 53 Commonwealth countries in a canopy of sustainable forest conservation initiatives for future generations.” In this account, the Queen is as irked by climate change as by the crows nesting in her plane tree. As ever, Jolie says it best: “She’s just this really lovely lady who really cares about the world.”
Like children’s mental health, environmentalism has all the makings of a royal cause. Sufficiently apolitical, seemingly classless, globally franchisable, it’s impossible to make sad kids or tree-hugging look bad. A good litmus is our gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who managed to say something inoffensive about both at once: “Trees are vital for our happiness.” As Attenborough points out, trees also have a particular appeal for a monarch, as a “symbol” not only of “new life” and “growth,” but also of“stability”—“a sort of royal ‘I was here.’” Unless you’re Emmanuel Macron, trees tend to stay put. “She is determined to have a Queen’s Rainforest Canopy in place for eternity,” enthuses Labour MP and mastermind of the QCC Frank Field. In this light, the QCC begins to look less environmental than dynastic, a gentle yet forceful assertion of the continued legitimacy of the Commonwealth. Cleverly the Queen’s trees aren’t overtly political but rather intended to withstand political vicissitudes, to buttress Britain’s global influence against the winds of popular opinion.
Happily, however, the Queen’s green fingers are expediting a political imperative. In her “Global Britain” Lancaster House speech, Theresa May spoke warmly of Britain’s “profoundly internationalist” (i.e. imperial) history that had produced “unique and proud global relationships” with Commonwealth countries. With Brexit threatening to consign us to an historical footnote, now’s a good time for Her Majesty to be planting.
“On a balmy afternoon in June,” croons Attenborough, “the Queen is showing me around her private gardens at Buckingham Palace.” A pregnant pause. “But even here, we can’t entirely escape the outside world.” Cut to the Queen squinting at a helicopter overhead “Sounds like President Trump,” she quips, before sensing bad PR. “Or President Obama.” Sure enough, despite the pair’s careful attempts to keep within the walled garden of environmentalism, current events are intent on disturbing their pally romp. It wasn’t quite as comically mistimed as Tatler’s profile of Alexander Nix—the Cambridge Analytica chief who’d been suspended over a week beforehand for non-consensually harvesting the personal data of more than fifty million Facebook users to target voters based on their psychological profile. But it can’t just have been me who noticed it was more than a bit odd that at the same time as ITV was televising minor royals being carted sweatily between ribbon-cuttings, Theresa May was preparing to meet Commonwealth leaders on some rather less happy business.
The Royals are gearing up for their greatest performance of liberalism to date.
On May 24, 1948—also known as Empire Day, a holiday introduced after the death of Queen Victoria to “remind children…what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire”—the British liner Empire Windrush set sail from Kingston, Jamaica for Tilbury Docks. The 492 Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Bermudans on board had accepted the British government’s invitation to restore the mother country—as bricklayers, bus drivers, cleaners and nurses—to its pre-war glory. It was a memorable day, yet one which, aided by their destruction of landing cards in 2010, the Home Office somehow forgot. Cue sixty-three deportations and countless more threats of the same.
The still-unfolding Windrush saga is both totally shocking and entirely symptomatic of Britain’s hot and cold relationship with its Commonwealth (née Empire). As Moses tells Sir Galahad in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, a classic tale of immigrants like the lost boys of Windrush: “In America they don’t like you, and they tell you so straight, so that you know how you stand. Over here is the old English diplomacy.” It’s suitably prophetic, and truer now than ever. The only difference between Donald Trump and Theresa May’s immigration agendas is that our iron fist comes dressed in a royal glove.
The government’s manifold mishandling of the Windrush saga has exposed not only the sharp end of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” immigration policy, but the rank hypocrisy at the heart of the Commonwealth. Last month, protesters converged on Brixton’s Windrush Square—Britain being quicker to recognize Commonwealth immigrants with street names than with citizenship. Indeed what the whole sorry story has demonstrated more than anything is that the Commonwealth operates strictly at this level of pedestrian symbolism. While the Royal family embark on a seemingly endless charm offensive designed to conjure familial closeness, as soon as their subjects attempt to cash in on these warm words and empty metaphors, to actually lay roots, they find them summarily yanked out.
As the Royals gear up for their greatest performance of liberalism to date, it’s worth bearing in mind that just as “the values that bind” the Commonwealth, as Prince William has poetically called them, have no attendant legal status, nor does the incorporation of Meghan Markle into Britain’s ruling family offer any material benefit to Black Britons. Though we might lack palace gardens in which to do so, it’s we who need to smell the roses.
In 2013, the Royal Harare Golf Club in Zimbabwe was doing some gardening of its own. Originally known as the Salisbury Golf Club, the club was according to its website “founded in 1898 by a group of intrepid golf lovers” and gained royal patronage when King George V graced the green in 1929. Almost a century later, a decade since Zimbabwe renounced its Commonwealth membership, the club decided to replace the “foreign” firs, pines and eucalyptus its founders had brought with them with “indigenous” Zimbabwean acacia and msasa.
How this minor flurry of horticultural activity caught the attention of Zimbabwe’s long lost Commonwealth cousin is hard to imagine, but it did. Quoting club manager Ian Mathieson, The Australian framed the decision to replant the green in terms of a “conservation and course management program.” “If we are to retain water,” Mathieson explained, “these trees need to come down.” Pines acidify the soil, not to mention “the threat of falling debris from the old trees.” Of course, The Australian reporter noted, the club’s plans had “nothing to do with the politics of President Robert Mugabe, whose government has nationalised thousands of white-owned farms under a black empowerment program meant to reverse the entitlements of the white-led rule of the past”—and who’d been re-elected for the seventh time a few weeks earlier.
The Royal Harare Golf Club couldn’t have cared less about soil acidification. Nor were they simply uprooting fir trees: they were weeding out the last vestiges of colonial influence. I guess they kept the “Royal” for marketing purposes.