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Posted on Tue 20 September 2022

The Queen was the Face of Decolonisation - The Telegraph 19th Sept

Contrary to what is being alleged in some quarters, rather than being the face of Empire, as Queen Victoria had been, our Queen Elizabeth was the first monarch to be the face of ‘decolonisation’, as it progressed through the 1950s and ‘60s, and of the emerging multiracial and multicultural ‘new’ Commonwealth of independent nations.

 It is well known that the process of decolonisation accelerated exponentially during her reign but its roots lie very deep, going as far back as the American War of Independence. It is instructive to note though that American independence did not lead to abiding hostility but to the forging of a fresh and ‘special’ relationship, with the new nation adopting many of the parliamentary, legal and administrative norms of the old country( thus making the American revolution sharply different from the origins and results of the French Revolution and setting the pattern for the wider decolonisation to come in the 20th century). In Canada, similarly, the defeat of the Quebecois nationalists in the independence referendum, showed the continuing desire of Canadians to remain within the Commonwealth.In Ireland also, and in spite of the ‘troubles’, the Queen has presided over a UK commitment to the peaceful evolution of the two polities there and to an Ireland without hard borders and the free movement of peoples across North and South.

 In India, the bloodiness of the ‘Mutiny’, led to direct rule by the Crown and the ensuinglargely peaceful development of representative government and the establishing of judicial and administrative systems, as well as of the Indian Army. All of these remain important in modern India and Pakistan today. Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘non violent’ struggle for independence( itself inspired by his reading of the Gospels) was only possible in an empire where common moral concerns were recognised and shared. A free press and an active civil society not only emerged during the empire but have become characteristic of South Asian political life, fiercely defended from every encroachment. 

Apart from the Mau Mau movement, where the most appalling atrocities against White settlers and Africans, resulted in harsh British repression, most African protectorates and colonies proceeded to independence, during the Queen’s reign, in a relatively peaceful manner. The example of Southern Rhodesia, and the refusal of Britain to accept a White minority government, showed the world the commitment of HM government to democracy in Africa and in the Commonwealth as a whole. Most newly independent states joined the growing Commonwealth and much of British administrative and judicialstru cture remained in place. Indeed, some countries, like Cameroon and Rwanda, have been so so attracted to the idea of the Commonwealth that they have joined it eventhough they have never been part of the British Empire!

The Queen has emerged as the freely accepted head of this culturally and racially diverse body , providing it with much needed continuity and stability, which might not have been available otherwise.She once remarked to me that what she appreciated about the Commonwealth was its real diversity within an overall sense of belonging. Under King Charles’ leadership, the Commonwealth will continue to evolve and it may well be that its leadership will develop in a different direction. The Heads of Government have declared already that, while they will accept Charles as Head of the Commonwealth, they do not, in principle, regard its leadership as hereditary. Such a sense of both continuity and change are surely a reflection of a British commitment to evolution rather than revolution in political, as in other, matters.

 The emergence of English, a result of Empire, as the language of international affairs has also taken place during the Queen’s long reign with huge benefits for citizens of the Commonwealth in education, employment, business, the transfer of knowledge and skillsand all round economic development.

Continuing membership of the Commonwealth, suggests that nations and peoples value their historic link with the UK. The huge welcomes that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh received during their tours of the Commonwealth reflect the affection felt by many, not only for them but for the nation they represented. Not a few remember, or have been told about, the British love of justice, even against their own, and of the concern to eliminate corruption from petty officialdom, as well as the development of infrastructure, such as town planning, irrigation, roads and railways, not to speak of schools, colleges and universities.

While the Queen was always clear about her own Christian faith, she respected the faith of others and wished to protect freedom of religion and belief for all. She and her husband were ardent advocates of dialogue among people of different faiths to increase peaceful co-existence, freedom, prosperity and participation by all in their own countries and in the Commonwealth as a whole.

 Let us remember her then as someone who presided over the largely peaceful evolution of the Empire into a Commonwealth of sovereign nations, held together by freely acknowledged ties of history, language and culture.

Michael Nazir-Ali

September, 2022.

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