Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
The Commonwealth of Nations is one of the triumphs of the second Elizabethan Age. Currently 56 countries, it encompasses mighty India with its population of 1.3 billion and the Pacific island nation of Naura with just 13,000.
In that famous broadcast on her 21st birthday in April 1947, Princess Elizabeth pledged a life of service to her listeners and to “our great imperial family to which we all belong”. That family was fracturing. The break-up, decades in the making, began to be realised a little more than three months later.
India, the jewel in the Imperial crown, prised itself away and became not only independent, but a republic. It proved the catalyst for re-shaping the Commonwealth, of which India wished to remain a member, an outcome keenly shared by the Attlee government. The London Declaration of April 1949 not only dropped the term “British” from “The British Commonwealth of Nations”, but abandoned allegiance to the Crown as Head of State as a condition of membership.
King George VI might no longer have been Emperor, but the Declaration reflects the pragmatism of the monarchy: constant adaptation has enabled its survival for more than 1,000 years.
At the Queen’s accession in 1952, the renewed, post-Declaration Commonwealth had just eight members. Today, its quiet global success is too often overshadowed by the rancorous focus on its roots in a long-lost empire.
During the past week, the Queen’s passing has prompted assessments of political and social shifts within the United Kingdom during her 70-year reign. Perhaps the most tangible change was external: the long twilight of the Empire, as some 50 colonies became independent.
For some, the British Empire is synonymous with slavery, stolen artefacts, repression, racism, and exploitation. American commentators seem particularly keen to associate the late monarch with the more baleful aspects of Britain’s colonial past. The New York Times stated that she “sustained an imperial monarchy by assuming the title of the head of the Commonwealth”, while the Washington Post reported that black Americans “saw in her the embodiment of white supremacy and inequality” and there was “disdain for the ruler of a monarchy that had oppressed millions”.
A Carnegie-Mellon academic condemned the late Queen as “the chief monarch of a thieving, raping, genocidal empire” and Andrew Roberts, the historian, crossed swords with a MSNBC commentator who claimed that she “represented an institution that had a long and ugly history of brutalism, violence, theft and slavery.”
For critics, the process of decolonisation is, paradoxically, often as deficient as Empire itself. They refuse to acknowledge the broader global strategic context of the early Elizabethan era.
“I am sorry to hear about the death of the King. I suppose we are all soldiers of the Queen now.” Writing home in April 1952 from a North Korea camp, Corporal David Kaye was among 1,000 British Prisoners-of-War, including National Servicemen, captured during the conflict in Korea, as the Western bloc battled Communism.
Many British colonies and protectorates – including Malaya, Aden, and Borneo – were on the frontline in that battle, their independence movements led by Communist sympathisers. The United States’ anti-Communist intervention in the former French colony of Vietnam in the 1960s was mirrored by Britain’s “small wars” in the first two decades of the Queen’s reign.
Had the local Marxists prevailed in Oman, where British soldiers unofficially campaigned alongside their Persian (Iranian) allies, they could have controlled the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial global waterway for the passage of oil and liquified natural gas.
For most former colonies the transition to independence was peaceful. Insurgencies and Emergencies were the exception. A four-year counter-insurgency operation by British troops preceded Kenya’s independence in 1963. A State of Emergency had been declared months after Princess Elizabeth’s visit in February 1952. Treetops, the lodge where Queen Elizabeth heard the news of her father’s death, was burned down by the Mau Mau, local insurgents, also known as the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army.
Kenya’s example of nationalist agitation, British military pushback and then independence was echoed in Cyprus and the former mandate of Palestine.
In 2013, the Coalition government acknowledged the wrongs committed during the Kenyan uprising. Almost £20million compensation was paid to 5,000 claimants in connection with abuse: in 2015 a memorial was unveiled in Nairobi to commemorate “The Victims of Torture and Ill-Treatment in the Colonial Era 1952-1960”.
Since the death of another Queen, Victoria, Britain’s place in the international order has been transformed. The global hegemon at the start of the 20th century, it was eclipsed by the United States in the decade after the Second World War, to today’s more indeterminate status.
Over the past 70 years, Britain’s role in the world might have diminished but the Commonwealth has flourished. Most of the current members of the Commonwealth were formerly under British rule. Membership is voluntary: these independent states are not the victims of coercive control by the British government or the British Crown. As its High Commission states: “Kenya is a proud member of the Commonwealth since 1963 and remains committed to its ideals and objectives.”
This must surely baffle many in the United States, who seem to see the world solely through the prism of their country’s present racial tensions and its unhealed history in connection with slavery, the Civil War and civil rights.
Today about 2.5 billion people, including one third of the world’s young people aged 15-29, live in Commonwealth countries. To improve their economic prospects, in June the former French colonies of Togo and Gabon became Commonwealth members. France24 reported they are “the latest nations with no historic ties to Britain to enter the English-speaking club headed by Queen Elizabeth II.”
A fitting tribute by Britain to our late Queen would be to build on her achievement in creating today’s Commonwealth and commit to its future success.