Liberty Matters

The Monarchy and the Modern Commonwealth of Equal Nations

On 21 April 1947, the future Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 21st birthday during a royal tour of southern Africa with her parents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and younger sister Princess Margaret. In a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town, the young princess declared “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 took place during a period of transition in the monarchy’s relationship with the wider world as the British Empire and Dominions evolved into a Commonwealth of equal nations. Over the course of her 70-year reign from 1952 to 2022, Queen Elizabeth II was committed to her role as Head of the Commonwealth. As the head of a voluntary association of constitutional monarchies and republics that now comprises fifty-six independent countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, the Americas and the Pacific region, the Queen was able to exercise subtle diplomatic influence in support of the sovereignty of Commonwealth nations and the individual liberties of their inhabitants. 
The close relationship between the monarchy and the development of the modern Commonwealth dates from the last decades of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 brought representatives of the wider British Empire together and therefore served as the occasion for the first Colonial Conference among representatives of British colonies and self-governing dominions. These representatives discussed opportunities for increased trade and communication including the laying of a trans-Atlantic telegraph. Ten years later, in 1897, Queen Victoria tacitly expressed her approval for new technologies that allowed information to spread more quickly around the British Empire and Dominions by acknowledging Diamond Jubilee greetings by telegraph and appearing in newsreel footage while on holiday with her children and grandchildren at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
The transition from Empire and Dominions to Commonwealth of equal nations continued with the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which stated that the United Kingdom and self governing Dominions such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa were “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 subsequent statute of Westminster in 1931 gave these Dominions control over their own foreign policy, creating distinct constitutional monarchies that shared the same monarch. 
In common with his grandmother Queen Victoria, King George V (reigned 1910-1936), made use of new technologies to emphasize that he represented the interests of all nations and social classes, working toward a more prosperous society that would benefit people from a wide range of backgrounds in the aftermath of economic hardships and the First World War. In his first Christmas broadcast in 1932, which became an annual tradition for the monarch that continues to the present day, he marvelled at the opportunity created by the radio to connect with people around the world and  “For the present, the work to which we are all equally bound is to arrive at a reasoned tranquillity within our borders; to regain prosperity without self-seeking, and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overborne. My life's aim has been to serve as I might, towards those ends.”
King George V’s second son, King George VI (reigned 1936-1952) was the first monarch to formally hold the title of Head of the Commonwealth, according to the terms of the London declaration decided at the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference that year. The idea of a Commonwealth of equal nations evolving from the British Empire had been discussed in political circles during the late nineteenth century then gained additional public recognition from the speeches of South African general, then Prime Minister, Jan Christian Smuts who praised the principles of freedom and equality that he believed informed the societies of the Commonwealth nations. The contributions of the Commonwealth nations to the allied cause during the First and Second World Wars and the emergence of independent crowns held by the same monarch between the wars accelerated this progress.
Queen Elizabeth II (reigned 1952-2022) was the longest reigning and most well traveled monarch in British history and her overseas tours to Commonwealth nations were especially politically significant over the course of the Cold War, supporting the territorial integrity of Commonwealth nations, discouraging the expansion of the soviet sphere of influence into the nations that comprises the former British Empire and upholding the liberty and equality of the citizens of Commonwealth nations. The Commonwealth was originally conceived as an organization where the monarch would serve as head of state for each independent nation with a Prime Minister serving as Head of Government. 
When India, having achieved independence in 1947, decided to become a Republic in 1950, the definition of the Commonwealth was expanded to allow for a variety of forms of government including independent constitutional monarchies with the same monarch as the United Kingdom, republics and monarchies with local monarchs. This change reflected both King George VI’s wishes and wider concerns that countries that departed the Commonwealth might become part of the Soviet sphere of influence. These concerns informed the Queen’s engagement with the wider Commonwealth over the course of the Cold War. In 1961, the British government discouraged the Queen from visiting Ghana because of security considerations. She nevertheless undertook the trip because of concerns that Ghana might become part of the Soviet sphere of influence if Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev visited Ghana and the Queen did not do so.
The photographs from the 1961 royal tour of Ghana showing the Queen dancing with Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah were published in newspapers and magazines around the world and sent a clear message concerning the Queen’s support for racial equality in the Commonwealth and the wider world. South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1960 and became a republic. Following the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President, South Africa was invited to rejoin the Commonwealth and did so in 1994. The Queen exerted diplomatic influence in support of Commonwealth countries imposing sanctions on South Africa to end apartheid. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney explained to the Toronto Star, ““[The Queen] and I became quite close during the fight to free Mandela. She was very unhappy, as you know, with the British government’s position, as articulated by Margaret (Thatcher).” The Queen and Mandela became good friends raising toasts to one another on a South African state visit to the United Kingdom as “this gracious lady” and “this wonderful man.”
Throughout the Queen’s reign, both the sovereign and senior members of the royal family emphasized that the relationship between the monarchy and Commonwealth nations was a voluntary one and expressed support for national self-determination. In 1969, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh stated at a press conference in Ottawa, Canada, “The monarchy exists in Canada for historical reasons and it exists in the sense that it is of benefit, to the country or to the nation. If at any stage any nation decides that the system is unacceptable then it’s up to them to change it. I think it’s a complete misconception to imagine that the Monarchy exists in the interests of the Monarch — it doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people.” These remarks were intended to clarify the relationship between the monarchy and the people of Canada and other Commonwealth nations, emphasizing the importance of national self determination in the relationship between individual countries and the monarchy. However, the speech was remembered for Prince Philip’s subsequent remark, “We don’t come here for our health, so to speak. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves,” which became known as one of his famous remarks, obscuring the original intent of the speech. 
The Queen’s support for national self determination was clearly expressed in her speeches and actions. When Australia held a referendum on whether to remain a constitutional monarchy in 1999, the Queen refrained from visiting the country around the time of the vote to avoid influencing the outcome. Australia remained a constitutional monarchy and royal visits resumed. When the legislature in Barbados voted to become a republic in 2021, while still remaining part of the Commonwealth, the Queen sent a warm message to the Barbadian people, stating, “As you celebrate this momentous day, I send you and all Barbadians my warmest good wishes for your happiness, peace and prosperity in the future.”
Today, King Charles III is head of a Commonwealth that consists of fifty-six member states: fifteen countries where Charles III is Head of State, thirty-six republics, and five countries that have their own local monarchs. The new King is continuing the role defined by his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. As a constitutional monarch, the Queen was expected to remain above party politics, act on the advice of her minister, and avoid expressing controversial opinions, but she was able to make clear through her official speeches, attendance at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, and subtle diplomatic influence that she favoured the development of a society where individuals have the liberty to achieve their full potential.