The Daily Telegraph
Queen was first monarch to be the face of decolonisation
Contrary to what is being alleged in some quarters, rather than being the face of empire, as Queen Victoria had been, Queen Elizabeth II was the first monarch to be the face of decolonisation, as it progressed through the 1950s and 1960s, and of the emerging multiracial and multicultural new Commonwealth of independent nations.
The process of decolonisation accelerated rapidly during her reign, but its roots lie deep, going as far back as the American War of Independence. It is instructive to note, though, that American independence did not lead to abiding hostility but to the forging of a “special” relationship, with the new nation adopting many of the legal, parliamentary and administrative norms of the old country (setting the pattern for the wider decolonisation to come in the 20th century).
In Canada, similarly, the defeat of the Quebecois nationalists in the independence referendum showed the continuing desire of Canadians to remain within the Commonwealth.
In Ireland also, and in spite of the Troubles, the Queen has presided over a UK commitment to the peaceful evolution of the two polities there, and to an Ireland without hard borders and the free movement of peoples across North and South. In India, the bloodiness of the Mutiny led to direct rule by the Crown and the ensuing largely peaceful development of representative government and the establishing of judicial and administrative systems, as well as of the Indian Army. All of these remain important in modern India and Pakistan today. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for independence was only possible in an empire where common moral concerns were recognised and shared.
Apart from the Mau Mau movement, where the most appalling atrocities against white settlers and Africans resulted in harsh British repression, most African protectorates and colonies proceeded to independence during the Queen’s reign in a relatively peaceful manner. The example of Southern Rhodesia, and the refusal of Britain to accept a white minority government, showed the world the commitment of the British government to democracy in Africa and in the Commonwealth as a whole.
Most newly independent states joined the growing Commonwealth and much of British administrative and judicial structure remained in place. Indeed, some countries, such as Rwanda, have been so attracted to the idea of the Commonwealth they have joined it even though they have never been part of the British Empire.
Queen Elizabeth emerged as the freely accepted head of this culturally and racially diverse body, providing it with much-needed continuity and stability, which might not have been available otherwise. She once remarked to me that what she appreciated about the Commonwealth was its real diversity within an overall sense of belonging.
Under King Charles’s leadership, the Commonwealth will continue to evolve and it may well be that its leadership will develop in a different direction. The Commonwealth Heads of Government have declared already that, while they will accept Charles as head of the Commonwealth, they do not, in principle, regard its leadership as hereditary. Such a sense of both continuity and change are surely a reflection of a British commitment to evolution rather than revolution in political, as in other, matters.
The emergence of English as the language of international affairs also took place during the Queen’s long reign, with huge benefits for citizens of the Commonwealth in education, employment and business.
Continuing membership of the Commonwealth suggests that nations and peoples value their historic link with Britain. The huge welcomes that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh received during their tours of the Commonwealth reflect the affection felt by many, not only for them but for the nation they represented. Let us remember the Queen then as someone who presided over the largely peaceful evolution of the empire into a Commonwealth of sovereign nations, held together by freely acknowledged ties of history, language and culture.