There are few points of comparison for a head of state who remains in office for seven decades. In June 2022, Queen Elizabeth II, who died on September 8, surpassed even Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej to become the longest-reigning monarch in the industrial era. Only Louis XIV of France, who ruled for 72 years in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, spent more time on the throne. All the more remarkable, during these decades as sovereign she weathered extraordinary upheavals in British foreign policy—from decolonization to the war on terror, from the rise of the European Union to Brexit—that few could have anticipated when she became queen in 1952.

But the queen’s reign was as distinctive for its geographical scope as for its chronological span. At her death, the queen ruled over 15 so-called realms, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and a handful of countries in the Caribbean and the Pacific—the remaining parts of the Commonwealth of Nations, or simply the Commonwealth, that had retained her as their sovereign. Over the course of her reign, she had also been head of state of 32 independent countries across the globe. In 2021, Barbados joined 16 other states, including Ceylon, Ghana, Pakistan, and Trinidad and Tobago, which during her reign spent a period as independent Commonwealth realms before making the transition to republics.

These changes are themselves symptomatic of the tectonic shifts in the United Kingdom’s geopolitical status that took place under her watch. In 1952, the country was still basking in the afterglow of its moral and military triumph in World War II. Queen Elizabeth was surrounded at her coronation by her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, and other architects of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, who rather hubristically hoped her reign would usher in a new era of British global leadership. Over the next two decades, the opposite would happen: the United Kingdom lost most of what remained of an empire that at its height covered a quarter of the earth’s surface. With an economy devastated by war, it struggled both to pay for its worldwide defense commitments and to defend the pound sterling as a leading international currency. The United Kingdom was increasingly relegated to a supporting role in a superpower struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union and seemed uncertain whether its future lay with Europe or the Atlantic alliance.

But then there was the Commonwealth. To most observers, this loose organization was little more than the faint impression left on the globe after the British Empire dissolved. In fact, its history was more complicated and its function more significant. For the queen, the Commonwealth gradually became a defining mission, a way for the United Kingdom to reassert its influence and leadership in the face of decolonization and diminished military and economic power.  At its best, the Commonwealth served to shape and even amplify British foreign policy. Among the challenges now facing King Charles III is helping to secure the survival of this entity at a time when the monarchy itself, even as a symbol, appears increasingly anachronistic. 

Political Change, Palace Preservation

To many observers, the queen’s affection for, and frequent championing of, the Commonwealth was slightly curious. Apart from members of the Commonwealth’s various governmental and nongovernmental organizations, the queen was one of the few people who would casually slip the word “commonwealth” into a sentence, as though it had an obvious physical presence in the world, like a bank or a grocery store. To most people, the Commonwealth was barely visible, if at all. To understand her attachment to it, it is necessary to look more closely at how the entity developed, as well as the House of Windsor’s pivotal role in the British Empire that preceded it.

The United Kingdom’s imperial legacy shaped Elizabeth’s rule from the start. Commentators have repeatedly referred, for example, to the pledge of service she made to the nation in a broadcast from South Africa on her 21st birthday, in 1947. The precise words she used are worth recalling. She promised listeners: “My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong.” As the historian David Edgerton has recently argued, the United Kingdom did not acquire the full trappings of a modern nation until the second half of the twentieth century. Before that, it was essentially the core of an empire: the royal family was at its apex, and reflecting the class-bound nature of British society, London envisaged the empire in strictly hierarchical terms. When the queen’s coronation was being planned, the Colonial Office was asked to rank in order of precedence all 300 guests to Westminster Abbey from the colonial territories. At that point, although the United Kingdom had already relinquished its South Asian empire, British officials still expected that most of the remaining colonial territories would stay under British control for decades to come. When it quickly became clear that this would not happen, the queen needed a new way to sustain the royal family’s central role in the British state. The Commonwealth provided an appealing answer. 

The queen needed a new way to sustain the royal family’s central role in the British state.

In fact, the Commonwealth was already taking shape in the early twentieth century. Between the wars, the self-governing parts of the British Empire—the so-called dominions of Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa—asserted their constitutional autonomy from the United Kingdom, and the term “commonwealth of nations,” which was first coined in the 1880s, was increasingly applied to this group. World War II tested the limits of these countries’ independence from British control, with the Irish Free State (which left the Commonwealth in 1949) remaining neutral and South Africa, where there was considerable sympathy for  Germany, hesitating before entering the conflict on the Allied side. Following the war, India and Pakistan also joined the Commonwealth, and in 1949, British and Indian diplomats came up with a formula that allowed India to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic, thus removing the one factor that had hitherto bound member states together: common allegiance to the crown. The agreement entailed India recognizing George VI not as its sovereign but in the ill-defined role of “head of the Commonwealth.”

For Queen Elizabeth, who ascended the throne three years later, this agreement would be a means to modernize the monarchy. For one thing, in contrast to her father, who bitterly regretted the loss of his title of emperor of India, she enthusiastically embraced the advent of the “new” Commonwealth ushered in by Indian independence. Buckingham Palace kept a healthy distance from the futile efforts of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who sought to topple Egypt’s General Abdel Nasser during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and thus end his anticolonial influence in Africa and the Middle East. And the queen made clear that she did not resent the political forces that pushed British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean to seek independence in the 1960s and 1970s. She seems to have fully subscribed to the “official” explanation that this process was the natural outcome of enlightened British tutelage (despite that fact that, early in her reign, the United Kingdom had conducted brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Cyprus, Kenya, and Malaya).

Indeed, the monarchy was not even inclined to fight a rear-guard action to dissuade countries that had become independent as “realms” from then making the further transition to republics. In recent years, many analysts have speculated about what would happen in the remaining realms when the queen died. But change was already afoot in the Caribbean in the final years of her reign, with Barbados’s decision to renounce the monarchy and become a republic in 2021. Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, and Jamaica seem likely to follow. Yet throughout the queen’s reign, the palace has always been adamant that as a constitutional monarch, she could not be embarrassed by political changes in her realms so long as they took place by constitutional means. What mattered to her was that they remained a part of the Commonwealth. In this light, Charles’s visit to Barbados to represent her at the ceremony marking the country’s transition to a republic was a powerful signal of continuity.

Less Empire, More Friends

Most notably, the queen turned the title of head of the Commonwealth—an abstract diplomatic construct created to keep a democratic India loosely in the British orbit—into something far more tangible. She did so by a steady series of gradual accretions over the course of her reign: she visited almost all the Commonwealth’s member states; supported the Commonwealth Games and the annual Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey; attended countless meetings with heads of government; and even made a royal palace, Marlborough House, available to the Commonwealth as its headquarters. She also augmented the conventional diplomatic role of European monarchs—participating in inward and outward state visits—by cultivating warm personal relations with many Commonwealth leaders, which sometimes stretched over generations. In doing so, she eased the process of losing an empire for the United Kingdom and won it friends around the world.

Independence movements were the natural outcome of enlightened British tutelage.

Some of her diplomatic achievements were noteworthy. The crusade against South African apartheid was a signature issue for the Commonwealth in the 1970s and 1980s, and the queen sometimes appeared more inclined to side with many member states than with her own prime ministers, some of whom seemed unduly close to the South African government. When, in 1986, a boycott of the Commonwealth Games was threatened by countries who disapproved of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to economic sanctions against South Africa, the queen’s press secretary briefed The Sunday Times about the queen’s own concerns about Thatcher, in what appeared to be a signal to the rest of the Commonwealth that the queen was on their side. Since the British Empire turned Commonwealth was by its nature multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious, the queen sought to emulate that diversity at home. By making a point of meeting community and religious groups from the country’s ethnic minorities—she was the first British monarch to visit a mosque in the United Kingdom—she strove to make the United Kingdom a more welcoming place for newcomers, as mass immigration from the Commonwealth gathered pace from in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the queen was not able to escape the larger reality that, particularly in later decades, the Commonwealth did not have a clearly defined political purpose. Ironically, the advent of majority rule in South Africa in the 1990s, although it was a victory for the Commonwealth, robbed it of the issue that had given it international diplomatic prominence.  At the same time, the end of the Cold War meant that the Commonwealth lost its value as a way for the British government to keep open friendly channels of communication with countries that might have been in danger of coming under Soviet influence. In recent years, attempts to reinvent the Commonwealth as a “values based” organization have faltered, not least because many member states have fallen far short of the Commonwealth’s purported standards on issues of democracy and human rights. Poor leadership and growing doubts about the value of the organization’s activities have meant that, increasingly, it has only tended to be regarded as newsworthy if a story about it has a royal angle. Since the 1990s, the monarchy has increasingly seemed like a life-support system for the Commonwealth; hence the decision in 2018 to name Charles as its next head. If the organization does ultimately collapse, it will be despite the queen’s best efforts.

The Limits of Monarchy

In her support for the Commonwealth, the queen showed her considerable skill in reinventing the monarchy for a postimperial world. Yet in doing so, she also showed the limitations of royal influence. Perhaps by its nature, a monarchy is not the best constitutional framework for encouraging a more egalitarian society, and although the United Kingdom is a far less stratified country than it was 70 years ago, it remains a deeply divided one. An arguably greater problem lay in the queen’s tendency to present the United Kingdom’s relations with Commonwealth member states as a universal good, while making no similarly sustained personal effort to reconcile the country to its membership in the European Union. This was despite the strong links between the royal family and Europe, and the fact that the queen herself spoke fluent French, her husband, fluent German. Of course, British membership in the EU was politically contentious. But so, for periods of her reign, was the persistence of the Commonwealth. The queen remained properly neutral during the 2016 Brexit referendum, despite the attempts of some tabloids to draw her in. But by then, arguably, popular opinion had been allowed to drift for too long.

It is a further irony that Brexit may lead to the breakup of another entity that was close to the queen’s heart: the Union of the United Kingdom. The divorce from Brussels has given fresh momentum to the Scottish independence movement. (A majority of Scots voted against leaving the EU.) It has also created a new EU border across the island of Ireland, leading to a special status for Northern Ireland that may, in turn, encourage closer integration of the island’s north and south—and, ultimately, reunification between Belfast and Dublin. But if the British public is beginning to feel sellers’ remorse over the decision to leave the EU, the blame can hardly be said to lie with the queen. She was in almost every respect a textbook case of what a constitutional monarch should be in both domestic and international affairs: above party politics.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now