QUEEN ELIZABETH II AND THE COMMONWEALTH – HER ROLE AND LEGACY
This paper aims to present the role played by queen Elizabeth II in the transformation of the old British Commonwealth into the Commonwealth as we know it today, and the legacy that she leaves behind. We briefly introduce the founding documents that paved the way for the modern Commonwealth: The Balfour Declaration of 1926, The Statute of Westminster of 1931 and the London Declaration of 1949, documents which reshaped the constitutional links between the British Crown and the members of the Commonwealth. We review the queen’s contribution to solving various crises in the Commonwealth like the Rhodesian civil war, her support for the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat and other Commonwealth bodies by means of which Commonwealth nations could express their own identity and aspirations. We also analyse the symbolism of the Commonwealth Games and of the Commonwealth Service and the queen’s participation in their development. Furthermore, we also illustrate how the queen used her three constitutional rights (the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn) in order to perform her duties as Head of the Commonwealth. We also aim to investigate the sources of the queen’s power and we circumscribe our analysis to Dorothy Emmet’s taxonomy: power as “creative energy” and power as “personal influence”.
Key words: Queen Elizabeth II, The Commonwealth, charismatic leadership, diplomatic skills, power
When Elizabeth II became queen of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in February 1952, upon the death of her father, King George VI, the Commonwealth was made of only 8 countries: Australia, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and the United Kingdom. In 2022, the seventieth year of Elizabeth II’s reign, the Commonwealth numbered 56 independent countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and Americas and the Pacific. The fact that the initial membership increased sevenfold in this span of time attests both the organisation’s relevance to its members and the valuable personal contribution of its former head, Elizabeth II. The growth of this unique organisation has not been without its share of challenges and troubles. Numerous former British colonies or dominions gained their independence from Britain, some even became republics, but decided to join the Commonwealth, such as Ghana, Malaya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, Trinidada and Tobago, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Malta, Barbados (a republic since 2020), the Bahamas, Brunei, Swaziland, Lesotho, to mention but a few. Other countries that have never been part of the British Empire decided to join the Commonwealth. The Republic of Cameroon, the Togolese Republic and the Gabonese Republic, former French colonies which gained their independece from France in 1960 joined the Commonwealth: Cameroon in 1995 and Togo and Gabon in 2022, respectively.
Although India gained its independence in 1947 and declared itself a republic, it joined the Commonwealth. South Africa became independent in 1961 and although it applied to remain part of the Commonwealth, it was rejected because of its policy of apartheid, and withdrew from the organisation until 1994, when it was received into the Commonwealth as a republic.
Rhodesia was another hot spon on the map of the Commonwealth. Internal political conflicts between the white minority, which sought to retain power, and the black majority, led to a civil war. In 1965, the white minority issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, rejected by the United Kingdom, which imposed full economic sanctions on Rhodesia. The country declared itself a republic five years later. However, in 1980, after a fifteen-year crisis, Rhodesia’s independence was recognised internationally and the country, renamed Zimbabwe, joined the Commonwealth. Sir Shridath Surendranath Ramphal, the second Secretary-General of the Commonwealth between 1975 and 1990, described the queen’s contribution in finding a solution for the Rhodesian crisis in the following terms: „The Rhodesia issue threatened to tear the Commonwealth apart. At the crucial time, the Queen exercised her stabilising influence. She was diplomatically brilliant”.
The economic relationships between the United Kingdom and Europe was a bone of contention among Commonwealth leaders. While Britain was trying to forge new economic relations with the newly established European Economic Community, the Commonwealth was pressing for more numerous and robust economic partnerships within the organisation.
Today, the Commonwealth is an international organisation of states that have various forms of government: „a republic with a president as Head of State (such as India and South Africa), an indigenous monarchy (for example, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and Tonga), a sultanate (Brunei), an elected Paramount Chieftaincy (Western Samoa), or a realm recognising The Queen as Sovereign (for example, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada)”. In her capacity as Head of the Commonwealth, Elizabeth II contributed to the birth of numerous independent nations, witnessed countries relinquish their ties with the British Crown and declare themselves republics. She saw countries become torn by civil and racial wars and, at the helm of the organisation and with the support of Commonwealth leaders, spared no effort to try and find effective solutions to problems. She witnessed the demise of the British Empire and Britain’s readjustment to the post-imperial context. In the words of one of her prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth II „has watched it all […]. She’s seen each country come to London and negotiate an independent constitution; she’s seen them go from colony to nationhood, the move from Empire to Commonwealth. […]. So the Queen is in a unique position which is unlikely ever to be repeated in our history”.
The Birth of the Modern Commonwealth
The modern Commonwealth as we know it today is the result of the transformations that the British Empire suffered in the first half of the twentieth century, namely decolonisation and the dominions’ claims for self-governance and full command over their own foreign policy. These claims came to fruition in 1926 during the Imperial Conference of British Empire leaders, which took place in London. The results of the conference discussions are synthesized in the Balfour Declaration, which defines the status of dominions within the British Empire. Hence, the dominions are: „autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”.
The Balfour Declaration also made other major recommendations that reflected profound changes within the empire. One such recommendation concerned the status of the Governor-General of each of the dominions. According to the Balfour Declaration, the Governor-General serves only as the representative of the Crown alone: „In our opinion it is an essential consequence of the equality of status existing among the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations that the Governor-General of a Dominion is the representative of the Crown, holding in all essential respects the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the Dominion as is held by His Majesty the King in Great Britain, and that he is not the representative or agent of His Majesty’s Government in Great Britain or of any Department of that Government”.
This change also introduced the principle of „the divisibility of the Crown”. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch acts only on the advice of the government. Hence, ministers are responsible, before parliament, for the advice they give to the monarch. Before 1926, British monarchs, in carrying out their „constitutional responsibilities with regard to the colonies and self-governing Dominions, […] acted under the one Crown on the advice of the United Kingdom ministers”. The Balfour Declaration of 1926 marks a fundamental development in the relationship between the Crown and its various realms and territories within the empire in that „the criterion for recognising the divisibility of the Crown in this sense is not the existence of a separate government, but rather the source of responsibility for advice to the monarch with respect to matters concerning the relevant territory”. Hence, the Crown „became divisible in 1926 with the recognition that the monarch was to be advised by the responsible Ministers of self-governing Dominions with respect to matters concerning those Dominions”.
The recommendations put forward by the Balfour Declaration of 1926 received full legal status in the Statute of Westminster of 1931, which proclaimed the legislative independence of the self-governing dominions: „No law and no provision of any law made after the commencement of this Act by the Parliament of a Dominion shall be void or inoperative on the ground that it is repugnant to the law of England, or to the provisions of any existing or future Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom, or to any order, rule or regulation made under any such Act, and the powers of the Parliament of a Dominion shall include the power to repeal or amend any such Act, order, rule or regulation in so far as the same is part of the law of the Dominion”. Furthermore, Section 3 states that „[…] the Parliament of a Dominion has full power to make laws having extra-territorial operation”. The newly recognized legislative independence of the dominions is also underlined in Section 4: „No Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed after the commencement of this Act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to a Dominion as part of the law of that Dominion, unless it is expressly declared in that Act that that Dominion has requested, and consented to, the enactment thereof”.
The Imperial Conference of 1926, through the Balfour Declaration, and the 1931 Statute of Westminster paved the way to the birth of the modern Commonwealth, formally established by the London Declaration of 1949, which was adopted as a consequence of constitutional changes in India. For the British, who tried to maintain their dominance in that part of the world, the country was of paramount importance both economically and politically. India proclaimed its independence and became a republic in 1947, yet the British were determined to keep India within the Commonwealth. Lord Louis Mountbatten, King George VI’s cousin and the last Viceroy of India, who was charged with supervising the transition of British India to an independent India, received direct instructions from the king to ensure that India remained within the Commonwealth.
India’s status within the Commonwealth was formalised in the 1949 London Declaration, which accomodated a former , now an independent state with a republican form of government, into the Commonwealth, thus giving birth to the modern Commonwealth. The London Declaration stipulates the following: „The Government of India have informed the other Governments of the Commonwealth of the intention of the Indian people that under the new constitution which is about to be adopted India shall become a sovereign independent republic. The Government of India have however declared and affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of The King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth”. Therefore, a new blueprint for the Commonwealth was created: a free association of independent and equal nations, having the British monarch as head of the organisation and a unifying symbol of their free association.
Although the 1949 London Declaration referred solely to India, it established a precedent on the basis of each newly independent African and Asian states, which also aspired to a republican form of government, were allowed to remain within the Commonwealth. Furthermore, Commonwealth membership would no longer depend „on allegiance to the Crown”, as stipulated by the 1931 Statute of Westminster, „but upon ‘a declared act of will’”. After the death of King George VI, the first British monarch to be conferred the title of Head of Commonwealth, the members of the organisation unanimously recognised his successor, Queen Elizabeth II, as the new Head of the Commonwealth.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Role within the Commonwealth
The manner in which Elizabeth II managed to forge a role for herself within the organisation, be more than a figurehead and remain relevant continues to inspire in-depth research. Her achievement is even more notable as the Commonwealth is an international association as no other: it does not have a constitution or a charter to provide clear, formalized rules of conduct for its head or to define her/his responsibilities, for instance. The Commonwealth that she was representing had little in common with the empire of George V or the Commonwealth known by George VI. The modern Commonwealth, founded by the 1949 London Declaration, was born just three years before she acceded the throne. So, in a way, the Commonwealth and Elizabeth II as monarch grew together. Being the Head of the Commonwealth was a new territory which she had to map for herself.
As the unifying symbol of the free association on independent and equal nations, Elizabeth II knew that one of her roles was to stengthen the links between herself and the Commonwealth members as well as the links among Commonwealth nations. So, communication was paramount. Just like her grandfather and father before her, she used technology in order to shorten the distance between herself and the Commonwealth peoples. George V was the first monarch to use radio waves when he sent his Christmas message to the Empire on Christmas day 1932 from his home in Sandringham. Radio was also used by George VI to keep in touch with his subjects across the world. Elizabeth II used both radio and television to communicate with the British and the Commonwealth nations, be it a Christmas message or a message to the Commonwealth on Commonwealth Day (the second Monday of March) or a message marking a particular event in Britain or across the Commonwealth.
Visits were another means of strengthening ties with Commonwealth communities. In fact, Elizabeth II was the most travelled monarch in the history of the British monarchy. According to the website of the British Royal Family, „[…] the Queen undertook more than 200 visits to the Commonwealth, and visited every country of the Commonwealth (with the exception of Cameroon, which joined in 1995, and Rwanda, which joined in 2009) as well as making many repeat visits. One third of The Queen’s total overseas visits were to Commonwealth countries”.
The speech that she delivered when she came of age, on 21 April 1947, from Cape Town while accompanying her parents on an official tour, was to become one of the landmark speeches of her reign. It is the speech in which she pledges herself to her country, Great Britain, and the Commonwealth:
„[…] There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors – a noble motto, ‘I serve’. Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the Throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did. […] But through the inventions of science I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with a whole Empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple. I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. […]”.
The speech was penned by Sir Henry Lascelles, Private Secretary to George VI at the time, and although it sounded anachronistic in the way in which the ideas were worded, „it strangely captured the moment”. The speech was more than just a message of the heiress apparent on the day she came of age, ready to assume official responsibilities. Taking into consideration the time it was delivered (1947, the year of the partition and independence of India) and the place where it was delivered from, Cape Town, the legislative capital of the Union of South Africa, an independent dominion of the British Empire at the time, the speech also manifests a political dimension, although the young princess may not have been aware of it: it was meant to be a boost for the English-speaking population of the Union, who supported the monarchical government and the dominion status within the empire. It was aimed at India, whose status of Commonwealth member was much desired by the British. Furthermore, it was a way of improving the morale of the Britons, weakened by the privations of the war and anxious about the future. The speech also tried to breathe new life into the role of the British Crown as the vital connector „in an association of nations and territories whose ties had become tenuous, because of war, British economic weakness and nationalism”.
Although the young princess was, on that occasion, the key instrument in advocating for British interests, it would be incorrect to conclude that she would willingly and consciously let herself be treated as a puppet although sometimes both British and Commonwealth politicians tried to use her name to win political battles.
From the very beginning of her reign, she assumed the duties and responsibilities of the Head of the Commonwealth with high commitment and utter dedication and worked tirelessly and collaboratively to deliver good service to the Commonwealth. Her Commonwealth tours and visits were occasions to buttress links between herself and Commonwealth leaders and to become more familiar with and knowledgeable about Commonwealth nations and their history, and better understand their aspirations. In a way, Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth grew and matured together. She had the opportunity to meet and become well acquainted with African leaders (with some she was close in age) who are now considered founding fathers of numerous independent African states: Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Seretse Khama of Botswana or the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean politician of unsavoury reputation Robert Mugabe.
Although she was the head of state of approximately just a third of the countries making up the Commonwealth, in mapping her role as Head of the Commonwealth, Elizabeth II made appropriate and clever use of her three constitutional rights as defined by Walter Bagehot – „the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn”.
As the unifying symbol of this free association of independent and equal members, Elizabeth II displayed great tact, used shrewd diplomacy, showed strong determination and expressed a deep desire to be a force for good. In more than one occasion, she exercised clear and firm leadership, contributing more or less obliquely to defusing or solving severe political crises within the Commonwealth. She proved that she could be not just a symbol, but „an active force”.
The queen’s active presence was courageously manifest in the context of the visit to the republic of Ghana in 1961. The country’s prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, who had led the independence movement in the late 1950s, was trying to introduce a single-party rule in order to consolidate his political position, and stifled the voices of the opposition through abusive and undemocratic measures, which severely eroded civil liberties in Ghana. The country plundged into political turmoil. The outskirts of Accra, the capital, were bombed. Under the circumstances, strong opposition against the queen’s visit was expressed by both Westminster and the British press as the queen’s safety could not be guaranteed. In addition, the situation in Ghana posed a thorny dilemma to the British: should Britain send the queen, the head of a democratic state, to meet a politician who not only critised the British colonial past, but had already started to develop dictatorial tendencies, build a personality cult, and severely restrict civil liberties in his country? Nevertheless, Britain’s prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was not fully convinced that the visit should be cancelled because of geopolitical considerations: the Soviet Union was courting numerous African states which had recently become independent, like Ghana, an aspect that the queen, too, was aware of. New African leaders did not rule out the possibility of economic partnerships with the Soviet Union as they saw the „Soviet economy […] as a concrete, feasible alternative to liberal capitalism”. To lose Ghana to the Soviets would have weakened the Commonwealth. The queen was resolute and unswerving in her decision to go to Accra and convince the Ghanaian prime minister to keep the country within the Commonwealth fold, and, consequently, within the Western sphere of influence. In a conversation with the British prime minister, she pointedly remarked: „‘How silly I should look if I was scared to visit Ghana and then Khruschev went and had a good reception’”. The queen’s visit to Ghana in 1961 is irrefutable proof of her growing political sense. She arrived in Accra and „melted Nkrumah” while she was acclaimed by the Ghanaian press as „the greatest Socialist monarch in the world”.
The Rhodesia crisis was another occasion for the queen to prove her active participation in Commonwealth policy. The government of Rhodesia was in the hands of a white settler minority since 1923, when the country was allowed to develop a sytem of self-governance as far as domestic matters were concerned „while remaining legally subject to ministers in London”. In order to tightem their grip on power, the white settler government, led by Ian Smith, issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, which was rejected by the British government for the reason that Ian Smith’s racist measures denied the black population of Rhodesia full democratic rights. A bitter clash broke out between the Rhodesian and the British governments and both parties made use of the queen’s name for their own political gain.
In order to prevent Ian Smith and his government from adopting their declaration of independence, Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, undertook an impromptu visit to Rhodesia and handed the Rhodesian leader a personal letter from the queen, in which she revealed her own opinion on Ian Smith’s anti-black policy: „I should be glad if you would accept my good wishes and convey them to all my peoples in your country, whose welfare and hapiness I have closely at heart”. By using the plural „all my people”, the queen made a clear reference to the black majority, too. But Ian Smith shrewdly turned the tables by reading the queen’s message aloud during the banquet for the British prime minister, leaving the impression that he was on good terms with the sovereign. In 1970, the Rhodesian government declared the country a republic, sparking a civil war known as the Rhodesian Bush War, which lasted until the end of the 1970s, when Ian Smith accepted majority rule.
However, the Rhodesian issue had an unsettling effect on the relations among Commonwealth countries, who expected Great Britain to have a deeper involvement in handling the conflict. For the new British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, Commonwealth matters were a sort of nuissance, an attitude which she openly revealed before the meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government that took place in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1979. The burning issue for the conference was how to end the war in Rhodesia, but Thatcher was reluctant to come. In order to cover her lack of appetite for a Commonwealth visit, Thatcher used the issue of the queen’s safety as a reason to avoid leaving London, and stated publicly that it would not be safe for the queen to go to Lusaka, where the influence of the Rhodesian Bush War was reverberating through guerrilla warfare. Immediately after the prime minister’s open remarks, Buckingham Palace issued a statement which clearly affirmed the queen’s firm decision to attend the Lusaka Commonwealth conference.
During the Lusaka Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which Margaret Thatcher attended, eventually, the queen finely exerted a unifying force. Her maintained political neutrality gave her an edge on the Commonwealth political divide regarding the Rhodesian crisis. She had gained the trust of Commonwealth politicians, who were willing to listen to and work with the queen. During the official reception in Lusaka, while in a conversation with prime minister Kaunda of Zambia, Nyerere of Tanzania and Banda of Malawi, she was heard telling them: „Far be it from me to get involved in your discussions over this, but I’ve known you all longer than you’ve known each other, and isn’t it better to talk about it?”. Notice how she positions herself in relation to the three African prime ministers: as a person who knowns them all for quite some time (a clear advantage), a position which allowed her to promote mutual trust among the Commonwealth members in a genuine way. The manner in which she exercises her righ to advise is also worth investigating: she does not offer her advice in an affirmative sentence as if it were something already established, but in an interrogative sentence. In this way, she invites them to have an active participation, and thus underlines the equal status of all Commonwealth members, whoever they are. She thus shifts the focus on them, offering them the lead role, while she takes only the supporting role, although, in fact, she was the initiator and the ice-breaker. The queen’s diplomatic and networking skills also made it possible for the Commonwealth members and Margaret Thatcher to get to know each other better and see that they could collaborate. The result of this joint effort was the Lusaka Declaration of the Commonwealth on Racism and Racial Prejudice, which provided the framework for fighting apartheid and racial discrimination. Furthermore, the Rhodesian representatives decided to assemble in Great Britain later in the year to resolve the crisis in their country. They met at the Lancaster House Conference in London in December 1979 and signed a ceasefire, thus ending the Rhodesian Bush War. Free elections and civil rights and liberties were restored and proposals for a new democratic Constitution were also put forward. All these measures paved the way to the international recognition of Rhodesia as the independent state of Zimbabwe.
Queen Elizabeth II exercised her constitutional right to encourage to the benefit of the Commonwealth in various other contexts: the establishment of the Commnonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Games and the Commnonwealth Service.
The Commnonwealth Secretariat
The establishment of the Commnonwealth Secretariat in 1965, during one of the most difficult decades in the existence of the Commonwealth, was called for by the need to provide the organisation with a coherent structure that would oversee the cooperation among Commonwealth nations. The Commonwealth Secretariat is „the intergovernmental organisation that supports member countries to achieve the Commonwealth’s aims of development, democracy and peace”. The Secretariat „organises Commonwealth summits, meetings of ministers, consultative meetings and technical discussions; it assists policy development and provides policy advice, and facilitates multilateral communication among the member governments”. In addition, the Secretariat „provides technical assistance to help governments in the social and economic development of their countries and in support of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values”.
The queen’s contribution to strengthening the Commonwealth was not only moral, but also practical, material. She gifted the organisation with a beautiful palace in London, Marlborough House. Once the home of the queen’s paternal grandmother, Queen Mary, Marlborough House became the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is a clear symbol of the queen’s firm commitment to the Commonwealth, made even firmer by the fact that the queen’s generous gift could not have been offered at a better time.
According to the Tanzanian prime minister, Julius Nyerere, the creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat „emphasized the equality of all members, and gave final discouragement to the lingering sentiment that one member had a right to some predominance over the others. It has enabled the Commonwealth to develop along independent lines in accordance with the interests of all members”.
The first Secretary-General of the Commonwealth was the Canadian diplomat Arnold Smith. The sovereign and the Royal Family were careful to make the Secretary-General feel welcome in London. He was invited to „small luncheons or dinners” with the queen, her secretary or members of the Royal Family. Moreover, the queen encouraged Arnold Smith to see her before visits to Commonwealth countries in order to inform her on Commonwealth matters.
In contrast to the queen’s firm support for the Commonwealth, Whitehall was quite reserved with regard to the close links fostered between the British sovereign and the Commonwealth Secretary-General because „it meant that the chief Commonwealth officer had a route to Her Majesty which did not go via Downing Street”. Whitehall showed their initial frustration during a royal reception for the Diplomatic Corps, where the Commonwealth Secretary-General was „placed at the end of the line of chargés d’affaires – in other words, right at the bottom in protocol terms”. The incident did not go unnoticed and the queen handled it in a way which mirrors her understanding and respect for the position of the Secretary-General: „he would in the future be put before the line of ambassadors”.
The Commonwealth Games
The Queen’s commitment to the Commonwealth is also illustrated by her support for the Commonwealth Games, which she called the “Friendly Games”, thus underlining the friendly spirit of this particular international sports competition. The first sports competition to be organised within the former British Empire was the Inter Empire Sports Meeting, held in London, in 1911, during the Festival of Empire, which celebrated the coronation of King George V. The competition proved to be a great success and inspired the foundation of a quadrennial sports competition known as the British Empire Games. Its inaugural edition took place in 1930, in Hamilton, Ontario. The metamorphosis of the British Empire into the modern Commonwealth is also reflected in the name of the competition. In 1962, the Games changed their name in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Between 1966 and 1974, the Games were known as the British Commonwealth Games and since 1978, they have been known as the Commonwealth Games.
Although inspired by the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games have developed their own distinct features: “[…] the games will be different, free from both the excessive stimulus and the babel of the international stadium. They should be merrier, less stern and will substitute the stimulus of novel adventure for the pressure of international rivalry”.
Two distinct features of the Commonwealth Games are their common language (English) and the royal patronage. Queen Elizabeth II was the patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Duke of Edinburgh was its president since 1955, and he represented the monarch personally during the Opening Ceremony of the Games and read her message. She contributed to making the Commonwealth Games an increasingly inclusive sports competition, by supporting athelets from smaller Commonwealth countries to participate and by defending the multi-racial makeup of the Games. South Africa, for example, was last allowed to take part in the Commonwealth Games in 1958, because of its apartheid policy. As South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994, following the end of white rule, the South-African athelets were allowed to competed in the Commonwealth Games held in Victoria, Canada, in 1994.
As Head of the Commonwealth and patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation, the queen also supported the so-called Gleneagles Agreement on Apartheid in Sport, an expression of the Commonwealth’s effort to combat racial discrimination: “ […] The member countries of the Commonwealth, embracing peoples of diverse races, colours, languages and faiths, have long recognised racial prejudice and discrimination as a dangerous sickness and an unmitigated evil and are pledged to use all their efforts to foster human dignity everywhere”.
Another distinct feature of the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony was introduced during the Cardiff edition, in 1958: the Queen’s Baton Relay. According to the tardition established then, the ceremony starts at Buckingham Palace. The queen’s message is included in a baton, which is then carried by several relay runners throughout the Commonwealth to be handed over to the sovereign at the beginning of the Games.
The most recent Commonwealth Games were held in 2022 in Birmingham. It was the twenty-second edition of the Games, which coincided with the queen’s Platinum Jubilee. In her message for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the queen underlined the symbolism of the Commonwealth Baton: „On October 7th last year, this specially created Baton left Buckingham Palace to travel across the Commonwealth. Over the past 294 days, it has carried not only my message to you, but also the shared hopes and dreams of each nation and territory through which it passed, as it made its way to Birmingham”. The Baton is thus the expression of „the shared hopes and dreams of each nation and territory through which it passed”. In using this phrase, the queen must have hinted at potential constitutional changes heralded in some Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda or Saint Vincent and the Grenadines which may, in the future, organise referendums on severing the link with the British Crown and becoming republics. In fact, Barbados, another Caribbean state, had just declared itself a republic in 2021 and elected the former Governor-General, the queen’s representative in the realm, Dame Sandra Mason, as the first Barbadian president. Through the Baton metaphor, the queen acknowledges these national aspirations.
The Commonwealth Service
The genuineness of the queen’s dedication to the Commonwealth is reflected in the Commonwealth Service – a unique inter-faith ceremony which brings together people from all the faiths and races in the Commonwealth. It is organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society, and its main purpose is to build and encourage young people’s awareness of the Commonwealth’s role, values and accomplishments. The Commonwealth Service is held in Westminster Abbey, London, and has become an annual event in the Commonwealth Calendar, which could not have been possible had it not been for the queen’s personal determined efforts, practical sense and broad vision.
The first Commonwealth multi-faith service was held in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in June 1966. Although both Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh attended the ceremony, the event was met with some stiff opposition from certain circles of the Anglican Church, which could not consent to the idea of “some heathens” taking part in a Christian religious service. Such objections were even raised before the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Synod of the Anglican Church. Consequently, for some years thereafter, the Commonwealth Service was held in the Guildhall, the administrative centre of the City of London – a lay venue. Eventually, a lasting solution was worked out by the queen herself. On the practical and unprecedented initiative of the monarch as head of the Church of England, the Commonwealth Service has, since 1972, been held annually at Westminster Abbey. Among Anglican churches, Westminster Abbey has a special status: it is a Royal Peculiar, which means that it “belongs directly to the monarch and not to any diocese, and does not come under the jurisdiction of a bishop”. This allows the queen considerable leeway regarding the kind of events that can be held in a Royal Peculiar. Hence, „if she wants her Commonwealth to hold its observance in her Abbey, she can” . Thus, the queen avoided ecclesiastical complications and proved to be a far-sighted leader, capable of finding workable, down-to-earth solutions.
Queen Elizabeth II – A Charismatic Leader?
As constitutional monarch, bound by constitutional restrictions and the advice of her ministers, or as Head of the Commonwealth, whose unifying symbol she was, queen Elizabeth II did not have any political power in the sense in which an executive leader has. Yet, she proved herself capable of exerting firm and effective leadership. What was it then which enabled Elizabeth II to be “an active force”? It must have been a kind of power generated by personal influence and an understated dynamic force.
Dorothy Emmet identifies several types of power, among which “power as personal influence” and “power as creative energy”. Power as personal influence is “due to (a) moral strength of character, (b) prestige, either of person or office and (c) ‘charismatic’ qualities”. Power as creative energy is “shown in stimulating productive efforts in other people”. The queen’s moral strength of character is undoubted. Throughout her long reign, she faced difficulties with stoicism and fortitude. If her prestige was, in the first years of her reign, more the prestige of her royal status, she has acquired personal prestige while she matured as a monarch. Authentic diplomatic qualities, considerable tact and moral and physical courage contributed to this development. It must not have been easy for her to go to Ghana in 1961 and be seen in the company of Kwame Nkrumah while the capital, Accra, was under bombardment; or come to London and face the London crowds at the death of Princess Diana in 1997; or shake hands with a former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, in 2012 in Northern Ireland, in a highly symbolic gesture of reconciliation. But she did, showing grit and grace.
Her charismatic qualities meant more than her feminine charm. Her seductive warmth and good sense of humour put people at ease. She was an active listener, able to follow and understand her interlocutors. In state matters, she demonstrated broad knowledge and competence which, together with a good sense of proportion, made her be a reliable partner for Commonwealth leaders. Unlike the Iron Lady, whose leadership was marked by an indomitable will, Elizabeth II’s leadership style was manifest in her ability to inspire people. She was a leader who did not dominate but, to use Dorothy Emmet’s words, was capable “to strengthen and train people’s will, yet leaving them free to work constructively on their own account”.
The queen’s legacy
The very existence of a much larger Commonwealth than the one born at the end of the Second World War is part of the queen’s legacy. In spite of numerous crises that threatened to tear the organisation apart, the queen succeeded in bridging the divide and helping Commonwealth members reach mutual agreements. One such agreement was the one reached between the Commonwealth and Great Britain regarding economic sanctions against South Africa and its apartheir policy. While Margaret Thatcher was openly against economic sanctions, seeing them as “a crime against free trade”, a position which caused considerable friction within the Commonwealth, the queen, voicing the disquiet of numerous Commonwealth members, considered that some sanctions were necessary. She tackled the issue with her usual quiet, understated diplomacy, and economic sanctions were eventually imposed on South Africa, which eventually led to the end of apartheid. The fact that the Commonwealth has divised for themselves a coherent administrative structure was also, in part, possible due to her support. In addition, numerous independent nations within the organisation have the queen’s signature on their birth certificates. Not only did she oversee constitutional changes in these countries, but she supported these nations “to work constructively on their account” and find their own voice.
The position of Governor-General (the representative of the Crown in a Commonwealth country who has retained the British monarch as their head of state) has been occupied by more and more women throughout the queen’s reign as the sovereign supported women’s education and their participation and leadership in political and public life. The fact that Mary Simon is Canada’s first Inuk Governor-General is also part of the queen’s legacy.
However, Britain’s colonial past and its harmful effects is a sensitive issue that is yet to be solved. Elizabeth II was often criticised for not expressing an open apology to the peoples harmed by the British colonial policy. However, she took considerable steps towards reconciliation. For instance, her 2011 visit to Ireland is a tangible proof of the power of royal diplomacy. Her speech at Dublin Castle was highly appreciated and during her visit she used body language cleverly and authentically to communicate her feelings and views. Reconciliation and unity in Britain and within the Commonwealth are her main legacy.
Her royal dignity, the absolute commitment with which she asumed the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty and leadership of the Commonwealth, her remarkable resilience and stoicism when faced with adversity, her tact and diplomacy, her humour and extraordinary capacity to adapt and move with times while remaining relevant are some of the fibres that make up the fabric of her personality. Whatever flaws future analyses may find in the way the queen discharged her duties, there was ever more in Elizabeth II to be praised than to be pardoned.
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BEDELL SMITH, Sally, Elizabeth the Queen. The Life of a Modern Monarch, Random House, New York, 2012
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TWOMEY, Anne, „Responsible Government and the Divisibility of the Crown”, Public Law, No. 08/137, 2008, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1301166 (Retrieved 8 February 2023)
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), The Queen and the Commonwealth, Thames Methuen, London, 1986, p. 98 (citing Sir Shridath Surendranath Ramphal, the Commonwealth Secretary-General)
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), op.cit., p. 38 (citing Margaret Thatcher)
 Inter-Imperial Relations Committee, The Balfour Declaration, Part II – Status of Great Britain and the Dominions, 1926, p. 3
 Inter-Imperial Relations Committee, op.cit, Part IV – Relations between the Various Parts of the British Empire, (b) Position of Governor-Generals, p. 4
 Anne Twomey, „Responsible Government and the Divisibility of the Crown”, Public Law, No. 08//137, 2008, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1301166, p. 742
 Anne Twomey, ibid.
 The British Parliament, The Statute of Westminster 1931, Section 2 – Validity of Laws made by Parliament of a Dominion, Subsection (2), https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5/22-23/4/enacted (Retrieved 11 February 2023)
 The British Parliament, op.cit., Section 3 – Power of Parliament of Dominion to legislate extra-territorially, https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5/22-23/4/enacted (Retrieved 11 February 2023)
 The British Parliament, op.cit., Section 4 – Parliament of United Kingdom not to legislate for Dominion except by consent, https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5/22-23/4/enacted (Retrieved 11 February 2023)
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), op.cit., p. 5
 The Commonwealth Prime Ministers, The London Declaration 1949, 1949, https://thecommonwealth.org/london-declaration-1949 (Retrieved 11 February 2023).
 Vernon Bogdanor, The Monarchy and the Constitution, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997, p. 258
 Queen Elizabeth II as Princess, Speech by the Queen on Her 21st Birthday, 1947, 1947, para. 12-14, https://www.royal.uk/21st-birthday-speech-21-april-1947 (Retrieved 12 February 2023)
 Ben Pimlott, The Queen. Elizabeth II and the Monarchy, HarperPress, London, 2012, p. 115
 Ibidem, p. 118
 Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (Introduction by R.H.S. Crossman, M.P.), Cornell University Press, Ithaca New York, 1966, p. 111
 Ben Pimlott, op.cit., p. 464
 Alessandro Iandolo, Arrested Development. The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea and Mali, 1955-1968, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2022, p. 39
 Robert Hardman, Our Queen, Arrow Books, London, 2011, p. 61 (citing Queen Elizabeth II)
 Sally Bedell Smith, Elizabeth the Queen. The Life of a Modern Monarch, Random House, New York, 2012, p. 158
 Ben Pimlott, op.cit., p. 346
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), op.cit., p. 90 (citing Queen Elizabeth II)
 Ben Pimlott, op.cit., pp. 347-347
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), op.cit., p. 92
 Ben Pimlott, op.cit., p. 468
 Commonwealth Network, Commonwealth Secretariat, n.d., para. 2, Commonwealth Secretariat – Commonwealth of Nations (Retrieved 19 February 2023)
 Commonwealth Network, ibid.
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), op.cit., pp. 156-157
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), ibid.
 Sally Bedell Smith, op.cit., p. 464
 Routledge Publishing House Blog, The History of the Commonwealth Games, 9 August 2022, https://www.routledge.com/blog/article/the-history-of-the-commonwealth-games (Retrieved 15 February 2023)
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), op.cit., pp. 136-137 (citing the mission statement of the British Empire Games of 1930)
 The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 1977, „Gleneagles Agreement on Sport, 1977”, para. 1, https://thecommonwealth.org/news/archive-gleneagles-agreement-sport (Retrieved 17 February 2023)
 Queen Elizabeth II, „The Queen’s Message for the 2022 Commonwealth Games”, 2022, para. 1, https://www.royal.uk/queens-message-2022-commonwealth-games (Retrieved 17 February 2023)
 Royal Commonwealth Society, „The Commonwealth Service 2022”, n.d., https://www.royalcwsociety.org/copy-of-commonwealth-service (Retrieved 20 February 2023)
 Trevor McDonald (with Peter Tiffin), op.cit., p. 169
The Association of English Cathedrals, „Royal Peculiars”, n.d., https://www.englishcathedrals.co.uk/cathedrals/royal-perculiars/ (Retrieved 20 February 2023)
 Robert Hardman, op.cit., p. 298
 Dorothy Emmet, „The Concept of Power. The Presidential Address” in Proceedings of the Aristotelean Society, New Series, Vol. LIV, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Aristotelian Society, London, 1953-1954, p. 12.
 Dorothy Emmet, Function, Purpose and Powers. Some Concepts in the Study of Individuals and Societies, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1972, p. 235.
 Richard Dowden, „How Margaret Thatcher helped end apartheid – despite herself”, The Guardian, 10 April 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/10/margaret-thatcher-apartheid-mandela, para. 2 (Retrieved 19 February 2023)