The Daily Telegraph

Queen was first monarch to be the face of decolonisa­tion

- Michael Nazir-ali Michael Nazir-ali is a former Anglican bishop of Rochester and now belongs to the Ordinariat­e in the Catholic Church

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.

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