‘The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.’ This quote from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas Day broadcast of 1953 encapsulates the values and founding principles of the Commonwealth, and highlights the Queen’s immense understanding of, and belief in, this international institution to which she has been continually committed to since adopting the role of figurehead on 6 February 1952.
Looking back over her reign, it is clear that the Queen’s involvement as Head of the Commonwealth has been vital and inspirational. The Queen’s guidance and wisdom have enabled this institution to grow from a small group of nations to an association of 53 independent countries spanning six continents and over 2 billion people. It is her quiet diplomacy, subtle encouragement and unifying presence over the past 60 years that will undoubtedly afford the Queen a legacy in which the next 60 years of the Commonwealth are shaped by an endurance of the principles of democracy, equality and peace that have thus far commanded a central focus. Aside from her father, King George VI, Her Majesty is the only person to fulfil the role of Head of the Commonwealth.
Despite the fact that the position of Head of the Commonwealth is not enshrined in the Coronation Oath, the Queen’s genuine affection for the countries under her headship and desire for the institution to succeed is demonstrated by her ever-increasing involvement, which has always surpassed her expected duties. The past 60 years have seen the Queen extend her role as figurehead into new areas including symbolic functions such as meeting Commonwealth leaders and opening parliament in a number of member nations.
Through her role as Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen not only promotes unity and increases the profile of the association but also acts as a role model for all kinds of societal actors. While she clearly values her role as Head of the Commonwealth and constitutional monarch she acknowledges that she will perform these roles only as long as the people happily wish her to do so.This is just one of many ways in which she demonstrates and embodies respect for democratic process.
The Queen at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings
On a biennial basis, the heads of government from all Commonwealth nations meet to discuss important issues across the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The Queen first attended a CHOGM in 1973, in Ottawa, as part of a royal visit to Canada. Her Majesty has attended, or been present in the host country, for every CHOGM since then, although her formal appearances at the meetings only began in 1997. Speaking at the opening ceremony of CHOGM 2011 in Perth, She said of these meetings that: ‘Their importance has always been in precise relationship to their relevance: always being attuned to the issues of the day, and always looking to the future with a sense of vision and practical action to match.’ The Queen’s attendance at these meetings may be seen to reinforce her unifying role in strengthening co-operation among Commonwealth countries; her sense of commitment is clear and exemplified by considering that, despite the disagreement of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Her Majesty attended the 1979 CHOGM in Lusaka, Zambia regardless of security concerns. This was the Queen’s first visit to Zambia and demonstrated her selfless awareness that then President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, was in need of her support. The subsequent summit was a success, with the Queen utilising her renowned diplomacy to perform a conciliatory role.
The Queen and Commonwealth countries
Beginning with her first official Commonwealth tour, which set off in November 1953, the Queen has paid numerous visits to virtually every country in the Commonwealth. This first tour lasted six months, included 13 countries and saw the Queen and Prince Philip travel by plane, car, rail and sea. Many of the countries visited had never before seen their Queen, and thus the trip provided a timely opportunity not only to promote the image and values of the Commonwealth, but also to reiterate Her Majesty’s position as symbolic leader around the world. Since then, the Queen has continued to visit Commonwealth countries across Asia, Africa, the Pacific, the Americas and the Caribbean, and Europe.
Often planning her meetings around CHOGMs and the Commonwealth Games, the Queen also manages to find time to greet members of the public and pay her respects to the memories of the many Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in World Wars I and II. During these visits, through her warmth and support the Queen has seen her relationships with world leaders grow from strength to strength, with many now looking upon her with feelings of friendship as well as respect. Her Majesty has formed an enduring friendship with former South African president Nelson Mandela, with him referring to her as ‘my friend Elizabeth’ and her signing off letters to him with the words ‘Your sincere friend, Elizabeth R’. The continuation of such visits and the network of friendships that they cultivate around the Commonwealth are vital in reiterating the association as a family of nations that holds common interests at heart.
The Queen and her realms
The Commonwealth is also home to all 16 of the Commonwealth realms. Following independence from the UK, these former British colonies have chosen to retain constitutional relationships and the tradition of having the Queen as head of state. Aside from the United Kingdom, there are 15 Commonwealth realms in existence today: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Barbados, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
In her capacity as monarch of all Commonwealth realms, Queen Elizabeth II has made over 80 visits to these countries. Beginning with her maiden official visit to a Commonwealth realm as Queen of New Zealand in 1953, Her Majesty’s visits have stretched the breadth and range of all habitable continents of the world, with her many subsequent official visits including:
- her visits as Queen of Jamaica in 1966, 1975, 1983, 1994 and 2002
- her numerous visits as Queen of Canada from her first visit in 1957 to a score of others in every decade of her reign
- her visit to the small South Pacific country of Tuvalu as Queen of Tuvalu in 1982
- her 1985 grand round trip to the Caribbean as Queen in each of the following sovereign countries: Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, St Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines
- her most recent visit as Queen of Australia in 2011, which was preceded by many others to the country
Historically, many Commonwealth republics that now have presidents as their head of state did, at one point, have the Queen as their monarch following their independence from the UK. This was reflected in the Queen’s visits over the decades as Queen of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Queen of Sierra Leone, Queen of Trinidad and Tobago, Queen of Malta and as Queen of Mauritius. All these countries are now republics and instead maintain a ceremonial link to the Queen by virtue of their Commonwealth membership.
The Queen cannot always fulfil the role of head of state in each of her realms and thus out of practicality she is represented, constitutionally, by a governor-general in each country. The role of the governor-general is unique to the Commonwealth and involves the carrying out of ceremonial day-to-day duties of head of state on behalf of the Queen. Such duties include the appointment of government ministers, ambassadors and judges on the advice of a prime minister, and giving Royal Assent to legislation. Governors-general are elected or chosen by the country’s parliament, cabinet or prime minister and all formally appointed by the Queen. On the advice of a Commonwealth realm’s government, almost all governors-general are knighted by the Queen as an accepted norm and accorded the title ‘Dame’ when female and ‘Sir’ when male. Canada and Australia are the exceptions to this.
The Queen and Commonwealth Day
At the 1975 CHOGM in Kingston, Jamaica, then Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau suggested that a ‘simultaneously observed Commonwealth Day would focus attention upon the association and its contribution to a harmonious global environment’. Thus, Commonwealth Day was born with the second Monday of March each year now dedicated to a day that acknowledges achievements of the Commonwealth over the past year and reminds its members, and the world, of the principles of democracy, equality and peace that lie at its core. The day is marked by a multifaith observance at Westminster Abbey and a themed message from the Queen in which she expresses her own heartfelt sentiments, rather than taking suggestions from her advisers. In the knowledge that her message is broadcast in all countries and territories of the Commonwealth, Commonwealth Day provides an opportunity for the Queen to demonstrate her commitment and cement her unifying role. Over the years, Commonwealth Day themes incorporated into the Queen’s message have included ‘Talking to One Another’, ‘Music’, ‘Building a Commonwealth of Freedom’, ‘Health and Vitality’ and, most recently, ‘Connecting Cultures’.
The Queen’s involvement in Commonwealth organisations
From her work with Commonwealth organisations such as the Commonwealth Secretariat in organising important events, and her central participation in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, Queen Elizabeth II plays an essential role in preserving the fabric of unity of the Commonwealth. Her continued commitment to such unity across all founding principles of the Commonwealth is further demonstrated through her involvement in various Commonwealth organisations performing altruistic efforts and fraternal undertakings throughout the 53 nations of this inspiring institution. These organisations include Commonwealth affiliated bodies founded by Royal Charter, for some of which the Queen and members of the Royal Family are patrons or presidents: the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth (RASC); Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL); the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS); Royal Over Seas League; and Sightsavers (The Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind). The involvement of the Queen and the Royal Family in such bodies helps to raise awareness of, and provide solutions to, the day-to-day challenges faced by Commonwealth citizens in matters such as advancement of agriculture in the poor rural communities in Africa and Asia, respect, inclusion and healthcare for people with disabilities and promotion of creative talent throughout the Commonwealth, regardless of background. In ensuring the preservation of the annual tradition of Commonwealth Day the Queen also works closely with the Council of Commonwealth Societies (CCS). The CCS is an eclectic coalition of over a dozen organisations involved in many fields of Commonwealth society such as education (Association of Commonwealth Universities), media (Commonwealth Broadcasting Association), telecommunications (Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation), civil society capacity-building (Commonwealth Foundation) and governance (Commonwealth Local Government Forum and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association).
The Queen and the Commonwealth Games
The Queen is a great advocate for the role of sport in society and has been a consistent supporter of the Commonwealth Games which, in testimony to the values of the Commonwealth, have often been termed ‘the friendly games’. First held in London in 1911 under the name the ‘Inter-Empire Sports Meeting’, these world-class games are now held once every four years and hosted by different countries across the Commonwealth. Despite having grown in terms of both the number of participating countries and the number of events, the Commonwealth Games have always tried to maintain their ethos of being ‘merrier and less stern’ than the Olympic Games. Over the years there have been both sporting highlights and social controversies; the 1958 Games in Cardiff, Wales, saw the breaking of 10 world records but was also the year of public outcry against the South African team choice, which prioritised race ahead of ability. It was also in 1958 that the tradition of the Queen’s baton relay began; starting at Buckingham Palace, the Queen handed the baton over to a team of relay runners who then carried it to Cardiff. Once it arrived at the location of the Games, the Queen’s message stored within the baton was received and read aloud by the Duke of Edinburgh. The tradition has continued and evolved, with the baton now travelling vast distances; in 2006 it took just over a year to reach the destination in Melbourne after having visited all Commonwealth nations and territories participating in the Games.
The Queen and the Commonwealth armed forces
Queen Elizabeth II holds honorary positions in armed forces of the Commonwealth. In addition to the UK, where she is the Head of the Armed Forces, the Queen and members of the Royal Family hold titular ranks as heads of various regiments in Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the UK territory of Bermuda. Members of British regiments born in Commonwealth countries have distinguished themselves in battle. In 2005 Lance Corporal Johnson Gideon Beharry, born and raised in Grenada, became the first living person in over 30 years to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration for valour in the British and Commonwealth armed forces. The Queen pays tribute by laying wreaths at various war memorials during her official visits to Commonwealth countries, as well as at the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall each Remembrance Day. The Queen is Patron to over 100 armed services charities and organisations including the Air Force Association of Canada, the Partially Blinded Soldiers’ Association of Australia and the Royal Malta Artillery Association.
The future of the Commonwealth
By heeding Her Majesty’s words on Christmas Day 1953, the Commonwealth will continue to bind member nations together in a spirit of friendship and peace.