Tuesday, June 15

The lack of ethnic minorities at Buckingham Palace has long been obvious, even to devotees | Phillip Hall


WWe now know that the Queen’s courtiers prohibited “immigrants of color or foreigners” from holding administrative functions until at least the late 1960s, and that her home went to great lengths to be exempt from anti-discrimination legislation. There must have been a concern that the lack of black faces in the palace could turn into legal action. Even the royal devotees raised their voices suggesting, albeit very softly, that this situation should change. One of the queen’s most flattering biographers, Elizabeth Longford, commented in 1983 that “people still hope that a position for someone from her black Commonwealth can be found at the top of her permanent staff.”

In fact, another rather uncritical writer on the monarchy pointed out in the 1980s that the practice was to appoint, over a two-year period, an assistant press officer to the Queen, rotating the job between someone from Canada, New Zealand. and Australia, which is to say predominantly white Commonwealth countries. That author, Douglas Keay, wrote that there had been a move backed by Prince Charles to find “another black person to fill the position, but in the end it came to nothing.” Longford noted that there had been a Nigerian squire at court for a few weeks prior to his visit there in 1956, and a Ghanaian press officer appointed prior to his visit to Ghana in 1959, but nothing at a higher level thereafter.

Of course, the queen’s family was not the only employer to discriminate, but business enterprises and government agencies did not have the means to protect themselves against race relations and acts of sex discrimination. However, there was another protection the Queen relied on: the British media. In 1992, I published a book that included a section that analyzed the queen escaping the carelessness of these acts. Also a well-researched documentary, produced by Thames TV, examined this area. They had practically no response in the rest of the media. Racial discrimination was not an issue of undue concern for the media. While the rest of my book, which was about how the queen escaped taxes on her private fortune and the cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer, it received very extensive media coverage, even among newspapers that supported the conservatives.

Those who have defended the monarchy have insisted that the Queen is fervently united with the Commonwealth. How can the contradiction between such an attachment and a determined reluctance to employ Black and Asian Commonwealth people, or their descendants living in the UK, be explained? It really is that the Commonwealth, made up of more than 50 former colonies, was a convenient way to close the British empire, of which the monarch was titular head, with the least ideological damage.

Both the government and the monarchy could point to the newly independent countries in the 1960s and say that the empire could not have been all bad because the previously colonized peoples still wanted to maintain friendly relations with the United Kingdom. This played an important role in offering a softer picture of the violence involved in maintaining the empire until it could no longer be maintained, despite the violent repression used against independence movements in Malaya, Kenya, Yemen and elsewhere. The Commonwealth did not and could not bury that past, but it was able to offer a more pleasant picture, showing that the empire led to something surprisingly positive despite its “mistakes” in the past. The Commonwealth was never about the monarchy forging a close relationship with formerly colonized people, or for that matter with those who came to the UK from such ex-colonies and their descendants.

The former colonies also had other reasons for being in the Commonwealth: financial aid, hopes for internal investment, and not disturbing a country that was still relatively powerful. It would have been difficult to decline an invitation to join the Commonwealth.

Much of the imperial past was Queen Victoria, the queen’s great-great-grandmother. She appointed an important Indian courtier in the late 19th century. Abdul Karim, known as Munshi, achieved considerable influence with Victoria. This appointment owes much to her romantic idea that her Indian subjects are supposedly dedicated to her. His privileged position, close to the queen, often led to conflicts between him and the titled ladies and gentlemen of the house. The accusations against him of being a schemer may be correct, although so was Victoria’s accusation against her court of “racial bias.” And one can go further back and find that in the 18th century, George I’s personal secretary was Turkish. As misguided as Victoria was over her Indian subjects, she is a long way from pushing for waivers against anti-discrimination legislation.

Fifty years ago, a high-ranking former Labor Minister suggested that a Crown Department be formed to run the monarchy. There was even a supportive measure at conservative banks, and the Daily Express supported it. That would have meant that the household, except for its most personal staff, would have been under civil service and a more open staffing policy. However, the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cobbold, told a select committee of the Commons that he felt that “the dignity of the monarchy” required that “the queen is controlling her own house”. Revelations about the palace’s labor practices show where that dignity led. By 2000 there were signs of small changes. There was the employment of a young Asian woman in the research and coordination department at the palace on a 12-month tour of duty, followed by another Asian woman on the same basis. But overall, it is not an uplifting story. It is surely time for the monarchy to end its exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation.


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