An empire which must have done something right by her colonies

John Kane-Berman writes on the enduring strength of the Commonwealth

An empire which must have done something right by her colonies

27 January 2020

Agence France Presse would have us believe that the Harry/Meghan "crisis" has "shaken the very foundations of Britain's ancient monarchy". Actually, however, the "crisis" has shown just how solid those foundations are and why the House of Windsor still sits on the British and various other thrones well into the 21st century.

The reasons are simple. The monarchy puts duty and the survival of the institution above family feelings. In 1917, given popular support for the Bolsheviks among his subjects, King George V ensured that his first cousin, Tsar Nicolas II, and his family were denied sanctuary in Britain. In 1936 King Edward VIII agreed to abdicate when the government told him he could not marry the divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson and remain on the throne. In 1955 Princess Margaret decided to give up the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend when the Cabinet made it clear that marrying him would entail giving up all her royal privileges and income.

No such agonising choices faced the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but it was made clear to them that they could not be part-time royals. And on 6th February, the grandmother who made this no-nonsense decision, will mark the 68th anniversary of her accession as Queen Elizabeth II.

The British monarchy has been moulded by tradition, adaptability, and precedent rather than by constitutional law. But the Queen also heads an institution which she herself has shaped, expanded, and led – the Commonwealth. This consists of 53 member states, including 16 of which she is head of state. She is a Christian queen, but there are more Hindus and Muslims than Christians in her Commonwealth.

Most remarkably, this club, of which membership is voluntary, grew out of the British Empire. Its founding father was Jawaharlal Nehru, who had served nine British prison sentences and spent nearly nine years in prison. But when he led India to independence in 1947, he also led it back into the newly-named Commonwealth, then headed by King George VI. And only two days after Elizabeth II had become queen in 1952, Nehru sent her a telegram welcoming her as Head of the Commonwealth. Last year that institution decided that Prince Charles would in due course succeed his mother as its head.

India was only one among many former colonies to join the Commonwealth. When South Africa was about to become a republic in 1961, Hendrik Verwoerd applied to retain Commonwealth membership (only to withdraw the application when other Commonwealth members declined to tolerate an apartheid-practising member). Now, of course, despite the fact that it always demonises "colonialism" along with apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) is only too happy for South Africa to be a member of the Commonwealth.

Marvelling at how many outposts of the former empire are so attached to the ex-colonial club, a one-time British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, wrote: "No one would have signed up to the Commonwealth if the Empire was as terrible as is now being written about."

Nor would there have been unanimous Commonwealth support for Britain at the United Nations when, in 1982, Margaret Thatcher sent an expeditionary force to liberate the Queen's 1 800 British subjects living on the Falklands and take back these British possessions. This, moreover, at a time when the Reagan administration (with the exception of Caspar Weinberger, the defence secretary) was rather wobbly about the British action.

Vladimir Putin should be so lucky. He bewailed the dissolution of the old USSR. Countries liberated from colonialism with the help of Soviet money and weapons have joined up with the former imperial power in London, but Russia's own former colonies in Eastern Europe have joined up not with the Kremlin but with NATO and the European Union (EU). And the Commonwealth even includes former colonies of Germany (Namibia), Belgium (Rwanda), and Portugal (Mozambique).

All of this has happened almost entirely because of the determination, wisdom, graciousness, courage, and strength of character of Elizabeth II. Some of her prime ministers, such as Edward Heath, were indifferent and/or hostile to the Commonwealth. Others were happy to dump Commonwealth trade arrangements and join up with the EU instead.

But she kept the show going. The Economist tells us that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might make "revelations about racism and sexism at the heart of the royal family". Good luck with that. Heads of state of all races, colours, sexes, and creeds from around the world would not have been queueing up for the past 68 years for invitations to stay at Buckingham Palace had any of them encountered any trace of "racism or sexism".

When Precious McKenzie, a South African weightlifting champion, was barred from our Olympic team and otherwise humiliated by the previous government on grounds of race, he emigrated to Britain where his application for citizenship was fast-tracked to enable him to join British teams at various Commonwealth games and where he was several times invited to meet the Queen in typically small gestures that spoke volumes.  

Moreover, she seldom allowed her own government to get in her way as Commonwealth head. In 1961 she visited Ghana despite calls for her to cancel the trip in the face of civil unrest and bombings in Accra. In 1979, there was a great clamour for her to stay away from the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Lusaka because of fears that her aircraft would be shot down by Soviet-supplied missiles wielded by insurgents in the Rhodesian bush war. But she flew out regardless.

Commonwealth countries included some that were notoriously hypocritical in denouncing apartheid while practising atrocities against their own people. For them the Queen had a message when she addressed a state banquet in Windhoek in 1991 after Namibia had become the 50th Commonwealth member. Africa, she said, could no longer use apartheid as an excuse for all its problems and had to recognise that "autocracy and economic stagnation" were the greater threat.

* Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Information about the Commonwealth in this column is taken from Queen of the World by Robert Hardman, published by Arrow Books in 2019. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.