The Queen’s favourite club

H Kumarasingham describes how the Commonwealth holds a special place in the sovereign’s heart

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are cheered on by a large crowd during their Commonwealth visit to Australia in 1954

Is there anyone in the world who has known as many international leaders as the Queen? Theresa May might be her 13th prime minister, but that pales into numerical insignificance when one adds up all the Commonwealth leaders she has met.

In the independent realms where she is, or has been, head of state she has racked up almost 180 prime ministers. Even that number is dwarfed when you consider all the other presidents, chiefs, generals and autocrats from the Commonwealth’s 53 member states. Along the way she has encountered generations of Trudeaus, Bandaranaikes, Kenyattas and Nehru-Gandhis, among others. 

As Commonwealth leaders descend on London for their biennial summit it is worth reflecting on one of the most inimitable and ambiguous leadership roles in international affairs − the Headship of the Commonwealth, a position held by one person for 66 years, and counting. 

The modern Commonwealth began in 1949 with independent India’s desire to remain a member of the organization despite wishing to become a republic, a move agreed by the Commonwealth’s other seven members at that time.

Nehru’s wish for India to be included made the question of membership for newly independent states from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean more likely, thus ensuring the organization’s modern existence and span. 

Before 1949, the British Commonwealth, as it was known, was perceived as a ‘white man’s club’ of settler states united by blood, battles and bullish self-confidence. The consequences of 1949 broke the hitherto constitutional condition under which member states held the proprietor of Buckingham Palace as their sovereign liege.

 George VI lost the title of Emperor of India, but gained a new designation. The Indians and Canadians suggested he become ‘King of the Commonwealth’, but its neo-imperial connotations were deemed unacceptable and there was no constitutional link to warrant such a sovereign title. For similar reasons a 1956 proposal for the Duke of Edinburgh to be ‘Prince of the Commonwealth’ was dropped. ‘Lord Protector’, evoking a very different Commonwealth from 300 years earlier, was discussed, but eventually ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ was settled upon. 

In an organization consciously without a constitution, nuances are critical. The title was a ‘fragile flower’, as the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, described it, where too much water was just as dangerous as too little. George VI held the position for only a few years and it fell to his daughter to craft a role for herself without a job description, let alone mandated powers. 

 The job was laden with problems. British constitutional monarchy relies on the prime minister and cabinet taking responsibility for actions taken in the sovereign’s name. The Commonwealth, while bound by British imperial history, is an organization determined by equality. 

Thus, as the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor has stated, the sovereign as Head of the Commonwealth had to avoid in this role both the Scylla of constitutional proprieties of not alarming her British advisers and the Charybdis of appearing to Commonwealth states as treating the headship as an ‘extension of the office of King or Queen of the United Kingdom’. It was legally, as the English constitutional scholar Geoffrey Marshall put it, a ‘remarkable piece of pragmatic nonsense’. 

Head of the Commonwealth is a position that entered the sacred coronation ceremony as part of the Queen’s titles in 1953, where the heavy air of ancient permanence filled Westminster Abbey, and yet this title relied upon the acceptance and good grace of a republic in Nehru’s India. As a French Canadian newspaper put it at the time: ‘The solution of the problem is in the good British tradition; it is both efficient and devoid of logic.’

Queen Elizabeth with Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, during the royal visit in November 1983

The Queen’s reign and tenure of the headship coincided with the greatest wave of decolonization the world has known. South Africa’s Jan Smuts, and others, were horrified by India’s inclusion as a republic since it could signal the end of ‘kith and kin’ leadership over the Empire-Commonwealth, which of course men such as Smuts wished to continue leading. 

 Figures like Smuts and Australia’s Robert Menzies were, as Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, has labelled it, adherents to ‘British Shintoism’ that surrounded the monarchy and gave it almost racial exclusivity. Thus, breaking the monarchical bond was dangerous. Leo Amery, the Tory politician and journalist, was worried about this and asked in 1948: ‘Is it inconceivable that one of these days republicanism may become the black man’s slogan and all whites stand together as monarchists?’ 

The monarchy in this reckoning could either perish as a Commonwealth institution or symbolize it. Enoch Powell thought the former and in 1964 called the Commonwealth a ‘gigantic farce’ and had contempt for the Queen’s Commonwealth role, which he saw as denigrating her British one. He believed that the British people did not like their sovereign ‘playing an alien part as one of the characters in the Commonwealth charade’. This was a clear reference to not only the growing visibility of a multicultural United Kingdom, but also to what Powell called the ‘make-believe’ position of Head of the Commonwealth. 

 The Queen took a very different view. During her silver jubilee celebrations in 1977, the last occasion until this year when Commonwealth leaders met in London, the Queen declared that she herself had witnessed, ‘from a unique position of advantage … the last great phase of the transformation of the Empire into Commonwealth and the transformation of the Crown from an emblem of dominion into a symbol of free and voluntary association. In all history, this has no precedent.’

‘The headship of  the Commonwealth provided an area of personal influence where the Queen could exploit the ambiguities of the office to subtly differ, if necessary, from the government’

 The monarchy was critical to this ‘transformation’. Indeed, the Commonwealth and the Queen herself, by their example, were instrumental in Smuts’ successor down the line, Nelson Mandela, taking South Africa back into the body when the republic emerged from apartheid in 1994. 

How has the Queen been able to be a successful Head of the Commonwealth? In one respect the she has virtually made the title synonymous with her person. From another perspective she has successfully cultivated and taken advantage of the distinct possibilities her Commonwealth role gives, which her British one does not. Where she is compelled by constitutional convention to follow her UK prime minister’s formal advice she has no such formal responsibility in her Commonwealth role. Lacking explicit power has its advantages. 

Coming to the position as a young woman she knew the Churchillian generation, but came to feel closer to the new successors from her generation, such as Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Indira Gandhi, Lee Kuan Yew, Malcolm Fraser and Pierre Trudeau. 

As Sir Sonny Ramphal, the former Commonwealth secretary-general, put it: ‘Her success in Commonwealth countries has derived from an awareness that she cared – that they mattered in a sense beyond the British government … She grew up with them, understood them and related to them.’ She also had an ability to be well briefed on all the political and social happenings across the member states. 

Longevity has enhanced this privileged knowledge and position. As many have commented, the Queen’s personal views are near impossible to discern. Ben Pimlott, widely acclaimed as the author of the best biography of Elizabeth II, was invited after its publication to a genial dinner with the monarch yet she never mentioned the book’s contents. Bagehot’s dictum in the era of Queen Victoria on not letting daylight on to the magic of the monarchy has remained valid. 

An exception, perhaps, is the Queen’s open support for the Commonwealth. While her British prime ministers and governments have lost interest she has not. Indeed over many issues the Queen, most famously with Margaret Thatcher, was at variance with her UK government. The headship provided an arena of personal influence where she could exploit the ambiguities of the office to subtly, but surely, differ, if necessary, from the government in way that was nearly impossible as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

 Anthony Sampson, a British journalist, once explained that since the Queen ‘held no political power she could forge her personal links without being accused of paternalism or political opportunism, and as a woman she enjoyed a kind of neutrality in this club of men. She became the unifying element at the conferences of Commonwealth prime ministers, even though she took no formal part in the proceedings, and however anti-British the mood, the premiers were always glad to have their separate audiences.’ 

Sir Don McKinnon, a former Commonwealth secretary-general, recounts that often during his term the Foreign Office and ministers either behaved as if it was the 19th century where Britain could dictate or simply did not see any relevance in the Commonwealth. When he had trouble, however, he knew he could count on ‘the boss’ to back the Commonwealth’s corner. 

As Bob Hawke, who supported the republic option in Australia’s 1999 referendum on the issue, recounted, in characteristic fashion, for the Commonwealth Oral History Project in 2015: ‘It’s very easy to underrate her significance. I think she finds the Commonwealth and her position as Head of the Commonwealth infinitely more interesting than being the Queen of England, because she has no significant role in the latter. She is, you know, “Do-what-you’re-told, Lady”. But in the Commonwealth, she is more than just a figurehead. She has immersed herself, in the sense [that] she can speak intelligently about any and all members of the Commonwealth and she has played a role. So, there is a reciprocal respect for her, for her interest in the Commonwealth. The members of the Commonwealth recognize that there is a genuine interest from the top.’

The Queen herself in 1990 described her understanding of the bond, which gives an insight to what it means to her and probably the secret of both the monarchy’s and the Commonwealth’s survival. ‘In the last resort, there is no compulsion to conform,’ she said. ‘If we are sometimes critical of each other, or disappointed, it is because we expect more of members of our family than we do of others. Now and then a member may even feel constrained to go off on their own. Some years ago this happened in Pakistan, for example. Yet today we have the joy of having the Pakistan back in the family. This illustrates perfectly the nature of the underlying bond which distinguishes the Commonwealth from all other international organizations.’

Extending the favoured family metaphor, the real issue is this: if the Commonwealth is discussed in Britain at all it is like recalling a second cousin who left so long ago that few remember that distant relation out of school uniform despite their having grown significantly, perhaps even taller and stronger; still related, but hardly known beyond the odd Christmas card. 

Perhaps the restrictions of the British crown and its formal constitutional responsibilities have hindered the Queen’s hopes for a United Kingdom more at home within the Commonwealth clan instead of evincing a mixture of shallowness, embarrassment and evasion, as has been the case for many years. 

For all the success of the Queen’s Headship of the Commonwealth it must surely be scant consolation when she reflects that the real problem is that she is the last person in British public life who truly believes in, and supports, the family of nations she has dedicated her reign to.