The Queen and the Commonwealth: a force for international change?

As Britain was losing its grip on a shrinking empire, Elizabeth II pledged her "heart and soul" as the head of the Commonwealth. Ashley Jackson looks at her special status among nations and her role as an agent of international change

Queen Elizabeth greets the crowd from the top of a huge elephant minutely decorated during a walk to the gates of the Jaipur Palace, c1961 in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The modern Commonwealth and Elizabeth II grew up together. They are age-mates – one might force an analogy and call them twins. Elizabeth’s birth year, 1926, was also the year of the Balfour Declaration (named after Arthur Balfour, as was the famous 1917 letter on the future of Palestine), a landmark statement acknowledging the independence of the ‘white’ Dominions in relation to Britain, bound only by their attachment to the crown. It was the Commonwealth’s foundational moment and the declaration’s principles extended to the empire’s non-white territories following the Second World War. The process of decolonisation, and the evolution of the Commonwealth of Nations that shadowed it, became leitmotifs of the new Elizabethan age, from the independence of Ghana in 1957 to the hand-over of Hong Kong four decades later.

I should make clear that any article on the Queen demands the caveat that much of what is written is speculative. This is because the Queen has not created a personal archive open to the public, published voluminous diaries or memoirs, granted interviews, or reflected autobiographically on Desert Island Discs. Given this, we are fortunate to have Philip Murphy’s study of the Queen, Monarchy and the End of Empire (2013), to guide us here.

The modern Commonwealth and Elizabeth II grew up together. They are age-mates – one might force an analogy and call them twins. Elizabeth’s birth year, 1926, was also the year of the Balfour Declaration (named after Arthur Balfour, as was the famous 1917 letter on the future of Palestine), a landmark statement acknowledging the independence of the ‘white’ Dominions in relation to Britain, bound only by their attachment to the crown. It was the Commonwealth’s foundational moment and the declaration’s principles extended to the empire’s non-white territories following the Second World War. The process of decolonisation, and the evolution of the Commonwealth of Nations that shadowed it, became leitmotifs of the new Elizabethan age, from the independence of Ghana in 1957 to the hand-over of Hong Kong four decades later.

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I should make clear that any article on the Queen demands the caveat that much of what is written is speculative. This is because the Queen has not created a personal archive open to the public, published voluminous diaries or memoirs, granted interviews, or reflected autobiographically on Desert Island Discs. Given this, we are fortunate to have Philip Murphy’s study of the Queen, Monarchy and the End of Empire (2013), to guide us here.

The royal family’s role and identity became entwined with the British empire during Victoria’s reign and, by the time Elizabeth was born, the Windsors had become an imperial dynasty. In that interwar autumn of British power, against the backdrop of a vast empire buffeted by fissiparous currents of nationalism and the tide of British decline, the monarchy was nurtured as a symbol of unity. As a girl, Elizabeth observed her parents embarking on royal tours, such as the 1939 visit to North America. She accompanied them on the 1947 southern Africa tour, her debut as a royal performer on the international stage. The trip afforded her a vivid preview of the Commonwealth duties that lay ahead. Conveyed aboard Britain’s last great battleship, HMS Vanguard, the tour took in Bechuanaland, Basutoland, the Rhodesias and South Africa. Over a month of the four-month expedition was spent sleeping aboard the ‘White Train’ which carried them for much of the journey between Cape Town, Salisbury and the Victoria Falls.

On the occasion of her 21st birthday, Elizabeth made a memorable debut broadcast from Cape Town to the empire-Commonwealth. The South African government made it the highlight of the visit, declaring a national holiday, and the young princess delivered a striking speech noted both for the words, written by the king’s private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, and for the sincerity with which they were enunciated. She addressed “the youth of the British family of nations” and pledged her life to the service of the Commonwealth – a “solemn act of dedication”, she said, made “with a whole empire listening”. This tour profoundly affected her outlook, helping to establish a Commonwealth interest and loyalty that became a consistent theme of her reign. Shortly after this defining tour, and further developing her Commonwealth perspective, Princess Elizabeth lived in Malta from 1949–51, where Prince Philip was stationed with the Mediterranean Fleet.

In 1952, Princess Elizabeth and her husband embarked on a tour of Australasia and east Africa. Undertaken on behalf of the ailing George VI, they made it no further than Kenya before news of his death was received. She thus became Queen while in the Aberdare mountains, in sight of Mount Kenya. The subsequent coronation was the swansong of the great imperial procession. Nevertheless, it featured adjustments that reflected the reality of the newly emergent Common­wealth. For example, the Accession Proclamation omitted reference to the ‘Imperial Crown’ – which would have had no meaning for independent India – employing instead the term ‘Head of Commonwealth’. Elizabeth’s sense of destiny and duty was confirmed by the event, with its strong Commonwealth flavour, including the presence of 300 guests from the empire-Commonwealth in Westminster Abbey alone.

Soon after her coronation, the Queen embarked on a 40,000-mile Commonwealth tour which took her to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Aden, east Africa, Ceylon, Australasia and the Pacific. The 1953 Christmas Day broadcast came from Auckland and in it the Queen stressed that the Commonwealth bore “no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception – built on the higher qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give my heart and soul every day of my life.”

Looking forward from the vantage point of 1952 and Elizabeth’s accession, most of the British empire remained intact. Although change was afoot in the world, she would not have known just how rapidly it would come. No one did. Yet in the first dozen years of her reign, the empire all but disappeared, to the point that in 1965 the term ‘British empire’ had ceased commonly to be used. With the emergence of a multiracial Commonwealth of independent nations sporting divergent interests, the Queen’s role became one of providing continuity during transformation. The process of decolonisation gathered pace in the 1950s, entered a sprint in the 1960s, then slowed to a steady pace in the 1970s and a trickle in the 1980s. Decolon­isation meant that the modern Commonwealth was not going to be the vehicle for British world power that many politicians had hoped for. It was not going to be a British empire-lite. A key aspect of the Queen’s interpretation and performance of her role as head of the Commonwealth was her understanding of the fact that this was irrevocably a multiracial and multinational association. Ahead of the curve, unlike many of her ministers and indeed her British subjects, she discerned the need to avoid ‘old’ ideas of imperial loyalty or Anglo-Saxon superiority and instead to embrace new members. She emphasised the importance of common history, ideas and values – theoretically shared by the diverse people of the Commonwealth, even if not by their leaders.

The vicissitudes of international politics, inevitably, rent, repaired and refashioned the Common-wealth cloth. There were high-profile departures, such as those of Ireland, South Africa and Fiji; expulsions, applications to rejoin, applications to join anew from countries never under British rule; invasions of Commonwealth realms and damaging intra-Commonwealth disputes. Differences over republicanism, Britain’s applications to join the EEC, declining British-Commonwealth trade and the fundamental realities of political divergence, shaped the Commonwealth. So too did the desire of some Commonwealth states to strengthen ties with Britain and with the monarchy, creating what has been termed a ‘royal Commonwealth’. Moments of high drama such as the Suez Crisis strained relations between Common­wealth countries and Britain, as did slow-burning issues such as the response to struggles against white minority rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa.

As head of state, as head of the Commonwealth and as Queen, Elizabeth negotiated the many challenges of independence, evolving relationships with new countries, and protocol. This was against an international landscape charged with the currents of east-west rivalry and north-south discord. The relationship with her own prime ministers and governments has sometimes been difficult and obliged the Queen to navigate a different course or to distance herself from government policies and the conduct of her ministers.

So what has Elizabeth II brought to the Commonwealth? Experts inevitably point to personal qualities, relationships and conduct. Her sensitivity is often remarked upon, as is her fundamental awareness of the Common­wealth as a postcolonial entity. Her awareness of other people and sense of caring is widely regarded, as is the strength of relationships that she has developed with the many leaders with whom she has dealt over a span of seven decades. This has engendered personal loyalties and affinities with Commonwealth leaders, irrespective of their politics or ideologies or, indeed, the attitude of British governments towards them. The Queen’s attendance at key Commonwealth events, such as the regular Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, brings the emollient presence of a central figure outside of politics and one possessed of unrivalled experience. For many of the Commonwealth’s smaller states, recognition of the Queen and Common­wealth offers a sense of security and connection with the wider world.

Elizabeth II is probably the most widely-travelled head of state in history

It also helps that the Queen has visited 116 countries, including those of the Commonwealth; she is probably the most widely-travelled head of state in history. Royal tours and state visits have become ineffable features of international diplomacy, Britain’s global profile and the modern Commonwealth. Tours and visits have been innumerable, including milestones such as the 1961 visit to India and Pakistan (which set the tone for visits to Commonwealth republics), the 2011 visit to Ireland and the tour of South Africa in 1995. Such occasions attracted significant media attention and sometimes marked major changes in relations between Britain and the countries involved, or key developments in their political and constitutional history.

Largely because the Commonwealth failed to develop as an agency of British power, the British government and establishment, and indeed the British people, lost interest and collectively forgot why, apart from shared history, it was there. But the Queen did not. Unlike her position as monarch of the United Kingdom, the headship of the modern Commonwealth was something that she had been instrumental in creating. Her roles as head of a Commonwealth of 53 nations and head of state in 16 of them continued to be taken with a seriousness not necessarily reflected in Westminster or Whitehall.

It has been speciously suggested that the Queen needed the Commonwealth more than the other way around. The historian Ben Pimlott succinctly (and more accurately) captured the symbiotic relationship: “The monarchy, with its imperial memory, keenly sought a Commonwealth role, partly to justify itself, but also because it had taken its supra-national role seriously, and – in a way that was never quite understood by politicians – it continued to relate to distant communities which showed their loyalty in ways that did not necessarily come to the attention of Whitehall.”

Harold Macmillan said that the Commonwealth “offered opportunities for a monarchical role, carved out for herself, that the United Kingdom could not provide”. The Common­wealth might have become a loose association and ties to the former ‘mother country’ been eroded by decolonisation, globalisation, demographic change, divergent views and changing patterns of trade. But the umbilical cord that linked states constitutionally to the monarchy continued to give the palace a different perspective and created a new space of contact – one beyond, in many ways, British society and politics. The question is how long these historical and, in some ways, anomalous links will continue, and where the extraordinary relationship that has developed between the Queen and the Commonwealth will go.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Queen at 90’ bookazine.