A sixty-year reign: a span embracing 12 presidents, 6 popes, 12 British prime ministers — starting with Winston Churchill — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the formation of the European Union, the end of the British Empire and the growth of a multiracial Commonwealth.
But then Queen Elizabeth II has reigned, not ruled: hers is not a record in government. The modern monarchy does not begin wars or shape domestic policy. And so the inevitable questions, as Britain and the Commonwealth celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, are now in people’s minds. What, in fact, has she achieved? What difference has she made? How are we to measure her years on the throne?
For several decades of the queen’s reign, British governments saw themselves in the business of “managing decline” — from empire and victory in World War II to the status of middling power. During this time the influence and the symbolism of the crown has been all-pervasive. The queen has not opposed change or helped Britain avoid change; what she has done instead is to enable change without despair.
Her permanence has given the British the essential self-assurance they have needed. The poet Philip Larkin caught it well:
In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change.
That’s all well and good. But at 60 years, one asks for more. Are there changes of which she has directly been the author?
When it comes to the modern monarchy, influence has been more discernible than action — but its power is sometimes much longer lasting, particularly in light of the transition from colonial empire to cosmopolitan Commonwealth. As Princess Elizabeth, she visited Cape Town with her parents in 1947, just before the empire fell apart and the modern, multiracial Commonwealth arose. After her trip, in a famous broadcast, she committed her life “whether it be long or short” to the family of nations now known as the Commonwealth.
A year later, the Afrikaner National Party swept to power and the years of apartheid began. It is known that her father, George VI, was, on this 1947 visit, appalled by the opposition of the authorities to his wish to decorate black (or in the parlance of the time, nonwhite) South Africans for war service. Clearly, his daughter understood and agreed with his attitude.
That primary commitment to multiracialism within the context of the emerging Commonwealth — rather than, say, a revanchist attempt by whites to keep a firm racial hand in control of things — has been clearly in her mind and heart throughout her reign. There has been no ambiguity whatsoever in her contribution to the transformation of a somewhat racist British Empire into a robustly multiracial Commonwealth.
The photo of her dancing with the black president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, at his country’s independence celebration in 1961 outraged South African whites. This was not a statement of policy, but it spoke no less clearly to the millions of Commonwealth citizens: the queen would stand by them, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality.
At other times the queen has telegraphed her position in less public, but no less obvious ways. Few people know, for example, what the queen says in private weekly audiences with her prime ministers, or what they say to her — not even the cabinet knows. But there was an undeniable difference between her attitude and that of Margaret Thatcher on the question of apartheid.
The prime minister opposed sanctions against South Africa, and was given an award by the South African government, while the queen clearly hoped that a multiracial South Africa would rejoin the Commonwealth. Though the queen could not dictate what Mrs. Thatcher could do in office, her clear support for the antiapartheid movement helped bracket, if not undermine, the prime minister’s position in the eyes of the world.
At no time was that support more clear than her delight at Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Three years before Mr. Mandela became president, Queen Elizabeth II did not hesitate to invite him to a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government group, signaling her belief that he was, at least in a moral sense, already the country’s leader.
Nor did she delay making a state visit to South Africa once he was elected in 1994 — congratulating the South African Parliament on the country’s transformation and Mr. Mandela on his role in bringing it about. To make her admiration and endorsement even more clear, she later awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Order of Merit.
The same values that defined the queen’s position on South Africa have also underpinned Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. This relationship is not an equal alliance of hard power, although there is a close military and intelligence relationship. Ultimately, it is an alliance of affinity: both countries are bound together by shared beliefs in human rights, the rule of law, democratic government, free enterprise and diversity — all values that the queen symbolizes in a human as well as institutional manner.
When she went to Jamestown, Va., in 2007 for the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English colony in the New World, she celebrated the language we and the whole world now share which first found lodgment across the Atlantic at that moment. But she also, with the greatest care, greeted the Indian chiefs representing the tribes that first met the English at the time — a step that only someone deeply sensitive to American history and deeply committed to multiracial democracy could have thought to take.
Her respect for the tribes and her affection for America and its people is fundamental to the present and future of our relationship. It reflects quite accurately the policy of government, but unlike statecraft it speaks from and to the heart. The queen is not a political leader, but in profound ways, she has led the politics of her age.
Alan Watson, Baron Watson of Richmond, is chairman of the Council of Commonwealth Societies and a co-author of The Queen and the U.S.A.