By Alistair Burt
THE UK this weekend (03rd May) celebrated the unprecedented achievement of Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee with genuine affection and warmth. Whatever the questions surrounding other elements of the UK constitution at present — and indeed the prospects for the monarchy itself, as set out by Andrew Hammond in his Arab News piece of May 28 — the queen can be assured that, this weekend, such issues will not be at the forefront of the minds of millions of people as they attend street parties and other gatherings the length and breadth of the country.
While attention will rightly be focused on what the queen has done for her people at home — from the child growing up under the shadow of war to the young woman taking on the duty of a lifetime 70 years ago — many tributes will be offered for the relationships she fostered abroad. The many friendships she has with monarchies in the Arab world, for example, have been built on shared personal interests and pastimes, as well as real affection.
Only history will reveal to what extent Elizabeth helped shape policy as well as follow the path of a constitutional monarch in the service of her country’s parliament and government. But her lifetime of diplomacy, through her unrivaled personal knowledge of the movers and shakers of the world, suggests much more than being a passive transmitter of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Her insights that “we share the same world but not the same opportunities” and that the real importance of the engagement between states is the “contact between peoples” evidently come from the heart and from her lifetime of experience, rather than simply a mandarin’s pen.
It is hard for a modern generation to understand how Germany was seen by the world 70 years ago. The mistakes of Versailles were not to be repeated, but macro policy is a long way from personal rehabilitation. When Elizabeth married Prince Philip in 1947, his German relatives could not attend the ceremony in London. Her own first postwar visit to Germany in 1965 was easily within the memory of her citizens who had suffered grievously from the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s ambition and the prospect of the visit attracted media and political criticism. Although it also played a part in the growing acceptance of the politics of a changing Europe for her government, the queen’s determined pursuance of the visit, her recognition of its moment of history and her personal commitment to the theme of reconciliation was a success to be echoed again and again in speeches and visits.
There was more controversy, and thus greater personal courage, in the acceptance of a state visit to the UK by Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1971. This had even more personal overtones, as Philip had seen active service in the war in the Far East. The brutal treatment of prisoners of war by Japan ensured public protests against the visit. But the queen was able to take the opportunity to say, memorably, “We cannot pretend that the relations between our two peoples have always been peaceful and friendly. However, it is precisely this experience which should make us all the more determined never to let it happen again.” Such a phrase is never wasted and there are many more today who might echo and act upon its sentiments.
This sense of “never again” is an ever-present in her speeches and visits to areas of controversy, where only time can heal. Her participation in Commonwealth summits dealing with the oppression of apartheid in South Africa helped ensure any rifts in policy between states did not become so wide that the Commonwealth itself was ruined. She had visited South Africa before apartheid and was there again at its end, developing a relationship with Nelson Mandela that matched his own determination for reconciliation.
Nowhere was this determination more personally or perhaps painfully expressed than in Elizabeth’s relationship with Ireland. She made a state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 — the first by a reigning British monarch in 100 years — and a significant trip to Northern Ireland in 2012. In the first, she carried the UK’s sense of regret for past tragedy by visiting the scene of a notorious 1920 murder of civilians by those under British command. In the second, she shook hands with a politician who had given up a violent past, in which he had been closely associated with those who had murdered Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in one of the most shocking and brutal acts of the Troubles. Both encounters helped to close painful chapters.
The queen could have retired long ago in grace and with goodwill. That she has not is due to a unique sense of duty. To use her time, decade after decade, to help overcome the pain of history, both long past or contemporary, has been a wonder that deserves emulation by other world leaders, as well as celebration.
(Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK)