The British Empire Library

Monarchy and the End of Empire

by Philip Murphy

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by The Rt. Hon the Lord Luce KG GCVO (Minister, FCO 1981-85, Governor of Gibraltar 1997-2000, Lord Chamberlain 2000-06)
The Commonwealth is a permanent background to our lives but usually only strikes the news headlines if there is a row or a special event. The recent Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka provoked much discussion about human rights in the host country. The forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer will generate some public interest. But the really remarkable achievement is that the former British Empire has transformed into a Commonwealth of over 50 nations of equal status combined together in free association and with the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. This world has witnessed many empires but I doubt any of them can match this remarkable transformation in the relationship between the former Imperial power and her former colonies.

Dr Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, has done a valuable service by writing a most professionally researched book on the role of the Monarchy from the ending of the Empire to contemporary times. By taking a step back and looking at how the Commonwealth has broadly remained together, we can see in this book how the Queen's role has been deeply significant. I have been privileged to serve as Lord Chamberlain for six years and have witnessed the infectious enthusiasm that the Queen shows towards the people of the Commonwealth. Philip Murphy's book analyses in considerable detail the different ways in which the Queen has led the way and helped to move things forward. Above all I would highlight her demonstratively strong personal sense of duty and commitment, given throughout her reign. It starts in 1947 with her broadcast on her 21st birthday during King George VI's official visit to South Africa: "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" and she then went on to stress that she could not carry out that resolution alone without the support of her people.

We in Britain know of her constant commitment to us but it has been just as strong to the Commonwealth. She has made 150 Commonwealth visits in 60 years to every country but the Cameroons and Rwanda. Her famous first big tour in 1953/4 lasted six months and covered 40,000 miles. She overcame difficult moments which included initial scepticism about her visit to Sri Lanka and strong objection from Franco's Spain to her visiting Gibraltar, where later I was privileged to be Governor. It has been her great personal commitment to the people of the Commonwealth that has generated so much affection and a sense of unity in the Commonwealth. For it is her role as Head of the Commonwealth that has provided a symbol of unity. But the polls also show what an asset the Queen has been in terms of Britain's influence in the Commonwealth.

We should not underestimate how difficult it was at various stages to overcome obstacles to the transformation into a Commonwealth. We owe much to Nehru of India for supporting the title 'Head of the Commonwealth' for the British Monarch soon after the Irish Free State had withdrawn from the Commonwealth. There has been a continuous debate as to whether new members should be Republics or Realms with a Governor-General. There have been upsurges of republicanism in many countries, not least Australia in 1975 when the Governor- General Sir John Kerr sacked the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, yet in the 90s 54.7% voted against a Presidential system, chosen by Parliament. Many African countries had serious doubts after independence about a link with the British Monarchy but in Ghana the Queen won over Nkrumah who remarked, "It would be too bad for that young girl if we left the Commonwealth". In Canada Trudeau encouraged republicanism until he discovered during a visit by the Queen that more people turned out for her than for him! Around that time, in the early 80s, I played a role as a Foreign Qffice Minister in passing the Patriation Act which transferred our last Colonial controls to Canada. And still today they have a Governor-General.

But Philip Murphy highlighted many other challenges which had to be overcome if the Commonwealth was to survive. The arrival of 750,000 Commonwealth immigrants in Britain between 1950 and 1960 symbolised the end of Empire. Britain was then inclined to turn towards the United States and the new Common Market. Many officials and indeed politicians showed no interest in the emerging Commonwealth. Then South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth and the issue of sanctions and the sale of arms to South Africa and, together with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the then Rhodesia, catapulted the issue of race and white supremacy into the melting pot. My experience as Minister for Africa during the intense period after 1979 demonstrated how effective The Queen's role was behind the scenes, steadying the tension by her presence and giving private advice to leaders like President Kaunda. Jim Callaghan said that "The Queen's opinion was enough to tip the scales" with Ian Smith over the issue of African majority rule in Rhodesia. Later she was brilliant at getting alongside Mandela soon after his release from prison and winning him over. Sonny Ramphal, Secretary-General at that time, has stressed how critical was The Queen's role.

Philip Murphy demonstrates how over the decades the Queen's presence at the vast majority of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings has done more than anything to keep the show on the road. Sonny Ramphal has described her audiences and discussions so well. She would know "who had got what political scandal raging. She'd know the family side of things, if there were children or deaths in the family. She'd know about the economy, she'd know about elections coming up. They felt they were talking to a friend who cared about the country." That says it all. Her personal touch provided the glue. And we should not underestimate the role of the Duke of Edinburgh who often helped to give us a sense of reality in that the Commonwealth exists and it is up to us to make the best of this opportunity as the Monarchy is there to serve the interests of all the people of the Commonwealth.

Philip Murphy shows very effectively how over all these years the Queen has worked positively and often assertively in support of the Commonwealth against a background of scepticism and criticism from British, let alone Commonwealth, leaders. Enoch Powell led the way by describing the Commonwealth as a "gigantic farce" and the role of the Head of the Commonwealth as "a sham." And it is striking how many British leaders spoke enthusiastically about the Commonwealth in opposition and how quickly that diminished when becoming Prime Minister. Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher were more negative than Labour Prime Ministers. But Churchill got it right when he spoke of "the magic link ... which unites our loosely but strongly woven Commonwealth of nations."

So where does the Commonwealth stand today after 60 years of the Queen's reign? In the early days the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation were established to facilitate coordination and to stimulate action. I served as Chairman of the Foundation in the 90s and here I must stress that the Commonwealth is principally all about the great kaleidoscope of networks and connections of professional bodies, non-government organisations and people. But it is up to Heads of Government to provide the framework for a stronger Commonwealth. Successive Heads of Government Meetings have strengthened their commitment to the fundamental principle of democracy, free press, independent judiciary, a strong civic society, respect for human rights as well as a commitment to conflict resolution. This is all enshrined in the new Commonwealth Charter which the Queen has signed.

I found Philip Murphy's conclusions on the last page of his book surprisingly contradictory and negative; contradictory because he describes the Commonwealth as 'a dying organisation' whilst his last sentence refers to the hope for fresh Imagination and courageous leadership from the Heads of Government. Indeed the Commonwealth is at a crossroads and is given new hope by the many decisions taken at the Perth Meeting in 2011.

But above all, having described so well the effective role of the Queen in helping to end the Imperial legacy and steer the Commonwealth in a new direction, he surprisingly expresses doubt about maintaining the Royal Headship beyond the current Reign. I would argue the exact opposite and agree with Julia Gillard who, then as Prime Minister of Australia, said in early 2013 that the Head of the Commonwealth, standing above individual governments and divisions, is an asset and that she believed that Prince Charles would one day fulfil that role with distinction. I sense that Prince Charles' experience and understanding of the Commonwealth was demonstrated most effectively by his remarkably positive and skilful role at the recent highly controversial CHOGM in Sri Lanka. But when the time comes, it will be for Commonwealth leaders to decide.

British Empire Book
Philip Murphy
Oxford University Press


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