Sixty Glorious Years

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In contrast to her Tudor namesake, Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne at the end of the age of empire. In the post-war period, which would soon become known as the Cold War and be remembered as an era of nuclear stand off between the USA and the Soviet Union, Britain would struggle to maintain itself amongst the first rank of powers. One of the controversial aspects of the young Queen Elizabeth’s reign was that from the outset she was fully appraised of the dangers the new world order posed and of the decisions facing the country. Alongside the other great powers Britain had “gone nuclear”, testing its first Atom Bomb in the Australian desert in 1953 and, as the decade progressed, upgraded its capability to the much more powerful Hydrogen Bomb. Winston Churchill concisely summed up the realpolitik at play: “We must do it. It’s the price we pay to sit at the top table.” Britain’s decision to join the nuclear arms race remains a highly controversial issue. What were the young monarch’s thoughts on these momentous decisions? We will never know of course but we can be sure that she supported the policy of keeping Britain “great”, an unforgiving labour as it turned out.

Having won the war Britain was, as has been ruefully pointed out ever since, on its way to losing the peace. For Britain the post-war world had a deeply pessimistic look about it. The age of European empires was clearly over and for the British losing the Indian sub-continent in 1948, the jewel in the imperial crown, was a defining moment. There would be others in the painful adjustment to the loss of world power status, a role which had passed to the USA and the Soviet Union. The young Queen Elizabeth had grown up in the age of empire and had a deep attachment to and belief in its intrinsic worth. For the Royal Family as well as for millions of Britons theirs was an empire based on and seeking to spread enlightened values. The struggle of the war years had convinced many that far from relinquishing its role in the world, British influence was needed more than ever. But independence was the clarion call for the peoples of the empire and the loss of India amidst war and division demonstrated that the old ways had run their course. Kick starting the Commonwealth was the great task confronting Queen Elizabeth. Her upbringing and instincts told her that it was the key to her reign but the post-imperial order needed to be refashioned. These beliefs were consistent with the pragmatic tack Britain had taken to hold the empire together.

As far back as 1884 Lord Roseberry had described the empire as a “Commonwealth of Nations” and since the 1880s conferences between British and colonial prime ministers had been taking place. Political evolution was taking its course and in 1926 PM Stanley Balfour expressed relations between the imperial territories thus: “Equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs . . . and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” If the task of binding disparate nations together again was Queen Elizabeth’s personal priority, it was the politicians who hammered out the deal and, ironically, it was India that provided the ballast. Burma had been the first of the colonies to become independent in 1948, the following year Ireland left, never to return. South Africa was debating whether independence was the route to go and Australia flirted with a separate arrangement with the USA. For the monarchy the portents were not good, nor the symbolism: with the birth of the independent India and Pakistan, King George VI had lost the title ‘Rex Imperator.’ How to reconstitute imperial relations? Britain had won the war but the economic price had been catastrophic and militarily the colonies were looking to their regional interests. But there remained shared interests also and it was independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who wanted to stay within some sort of Commonwealth; as did the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, despite the poor relations between the two. The result was a compromise in the best British tradition.

Whether this showed the political genius of the British way or was in fact a last minute scramble to save what remained is a matter of debate; but in April 1949 a conference in London attended by Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon marked the shift from colonialism to free association. In future the monarchy would be “the symbol of the free association of independent member nations . . . free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely cooperating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.” The deal was done but there was plenty of work at hand. The importance of the royal tours of 1953-54 was therefore enormous. Just five months after her coronation in June 1953 the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh set out upon the most ambitious Royal Tour to date. First stop was Bermuda and, thence to Jamaica, boarding ‘S.S. Gothic’ which was to be the royal base for the tour. After visits to Fiji and Tonga, arrival in New Zealand on 23 December for a stay of over a month. February and March 1954 were spent in Australia and then the return journey via Ceylon, Aden and Uganda.

The Queen was the first reigning monarch to visit New Zealand, greeted by what one local writer called “a national delirium”. Australia saw a million cheering as the royal party entered Sydney Harbour and two days later the State Procession brought a crown of over a million onto the streets, bringing the royal car to a halt on no less than eight occasions. At Malta the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were reunited with their two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, for a triumphal return via the new royal yacht ‘Britannia’. The tour had lasted 174 days and covered some 40,000 miles over land, sea and air. These Herculean efforts had succeeded in given substance to the Commonwealth dream; the monarch had shown herself to her subjects around the world and in the pre-television age it mattered hugely. Undoubtedly an historic triumph, but there were also signs of future trouble. In Africa the Ugandan visit was cut short due to the fear of incursions from anti-colonialist Mau Mau rebels in Kenya.

There was also a personal price to be paid. The tour had separated the Queen and Duke from their children for five months. Prince Charles, in particular, was a sensitive child and his formative years were highly unusual ones. His parents’ frequent absences were as unavoidable as the youngster’s attendance at some state occasions, such as the coronation, was required. Understandably Charles soon learned that his lot in life was a very different one from other boys. One newspaper, the Sunday Pictorial, quaintly described the young prince as “the eldest child of a typical British family”. It was a lovely image reflecting public expectation, but a total fantasy. (Extract from Royalty Magazine vol. 22/08)