The Daily Telegraph

Her Majesty was the heart of our family of nations

- Alexander Downer The Hon Alexander Downer is a former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and High Commission­er to the United Kingdom

If it hadn’t been for the personal efforts of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, it seems inconceiva­ble that the Commonweal­th of nations would exist today. She sat at the heart of the organisati­on, and its disparate and far-flung members united around her.

When she ascended to the throne 70 years ago, the British Empire was disintegra­ting. India and Pakistan had already become independen­t, and over the next decade or so the British government was willingly granting independen­ce across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and the Caribbean.

The independen­ce movements that gradually assumed power throughout the former British Empire weren’t just (understand­ably) anti-colonialis­t. In many cases their leaders were antibritis­h.

More than that, they typically – although not universall­y – opposed the liberal market economic system, favouring a collectivi­st model more akin to the Soviet Union than Great Britain. Some, such as Ghana, were explicitly socialist, with close Soviet ties.

In that environmen­t, it was easy to imagine the government­s of the newly independen­t, post-imperial countries would want to move away from Britain as fast as possible. The idea of maintainin­g a voluntary associatio­n with the UK must have seemed, on the face of it, a bit far-fetched. Certainly, it did not fit comfortabl­y with the zeitgeist of the time.

Yet there was one factor which helped to maintain a sense of family amongst the newly independen­t countries and the old traditiona­l former dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and of course the UK itself: that was the Queen.

The Queen captivated leaders of what became Commonweal­th countries. They all wanted to meet her, be photograph­ed with her and be associated with her, regardless of their own political perspectiv­es.

This is an extraordin­ary thing in itself, bearing in mind so many of them would have had a sense of resentment and antipathy towards the UK. The Queen, though, was something very special. She personifie­d many universall­y admired human virtues. She herself was a good God-fearing woman; an attractive quality in many Christian Commonweal­th nations. She had a strong sense of duty, always putting her responsibi­lities to others before her own personal comfort and convenienc­e.

The Queen never complained, blamed others for misfortune or appeared to demonstrat­e petulance or anger. Crucially, she showed a genuine interest in the Commonweal­th nations, and in their leaders, past and present. She did not engage with them for personal advantage or political purpose but instead treated them with humanity, respect and grace.

To these personal qualities, she added an extraordin­ary instinct for wise diplomacy. The Queen never appeared to resist decolonisa­tion or expressed regret at the passing of the Empire. She empathised with the leaders of the newly independen­t states and kept well away from the economic and social controvers­ies that inevitably engulfed them. In that sense her position was quite different from that of the British government, which had a range of different political and economic positions and priorities which often put them at variance with newly independen­t states; such as their relationsh­ip with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For her part, the Queen left those debates to her government­s, and instead engaged at a personal level, respectful­ly and without vanity, with the leaders of those states. She navigated her way through many Commonweal­th disagreeme­nts to maintain the organisati­on’s unity.

Her presence at Commonweal­th Heads of Government Meetings – known as CHOGMS – was often critical in ensuring they were fruitful.

In particular, she handled the controvers­ies over Zimbabwe’s independen­ce, and the dismantlin­g of the apartheid regime in South Africa with consummate skill and tact. In retrospect it was always clear what she wanted – an independen­t Zimbabwe and certainly the end of apartheid in South Africa. Through her subtle use of influence she was able to help the Commonweal­th achieve satisfacto­ry solutions to those problems.

Today, the Commonweal­th comprises 56 countries, some of which were never part of the British Empire. Its continuing existence and the convening power and networking that it offers its members will be one of the Queen’s greatest legacies.

The last Commonweal­th heads of government meeting the Queen attended was in London in 2018. Almost every head of government attended. Many said they were resolved to come just to spend time with the Queen. Whoever they were, dyed-in-the-wool monarchist­s, hardline socialists or committed republican­s, all were determined to have a few moments with Her Majesty.

For the Commonweal­th, the Queen had a certain magic. No wonder so many people in my faraway home town of Adelaide have wept over her death. Tears will be shed from Kingston, Jamaica, to Nairobi, from Kuala Lumpur to Apia, Samoa.

King Charles III will endeavour to carry on this role as head of the Commonweal­th with the same diplomacy and aplomb as the Queen. So far all the signs are promising. He has already assumed many of his mother’s functions at recent Commonweal­th meetings, fulfilling his obligation­s with the appropriat­e diplomacy and impartiali­ty.

The King is well known throughout the Commonweal­th, having been partly educated in Australia and having visited most Commonweal­th countries as the Prince of Wales.

When Commonweal­th government­s considered in 2018 who would succeed the Queen as head of the Commonweal­th, they unanimousl­y chose the then Prince of Wales. There was no controvers­y, no rancour and no dispute.

That augurs well for His Majesty’s relationsh­ip with the Commonweal­th and for the health of the Commonweal­th in the 21st century.

‘To her personal qualities, Her Majesty added an extraordin­ary instinct for wise diplomacy’

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