Fearful of oversleeping I woke early on another glorious sunny day in London, soon officially to be home (for the first time in forty years) to the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. On my journey to Buckingham Palace for the formal opening, it wasn’t horses but a fleet of some thirty black Range Rovers heading in the same direction as I was, but clearly having the monopoly of the roads, judging by the shrill police whistles, which temporarily stopped me and my fellow cyclists in our tracks.
Our assembly point was Horse Guards Parade from where coaches would transport us onwards. On entering Buckingham Palace, I came face to face with the Polish expressionist artist, Feliks Topolski’s ‘Coronation’ frieze stretching along the wall of one corridor in several sections: an instant reminder that I was walking into Her Majesty The Queen’s home, with its history going back centuries. More Royal portraits adorned the walls and, although guided in the right direction by helpful staff, I tried to walk slowly in order to absorb the past while focusing on the present. My destination, together with those few hundred men and women who had been granted passes to witness the opening ceremony was the largest room in Buckingham Palace first used in 1856. It is now traditionally where investitures take place. Ushered into the appropriate seats, we were instructed to sit for the arrival of the Heads of Government and the Royal family and then stand for the arrival of Her Majesty The Queen.
With the exception of a few notable missing ‘royals’ including the Duke of Edinburgh and the soon to be mother-of-three, the Duchess of Cambridge, the Royal family, young and older, had come in force: the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William, Prince Harry, Prince Andrew, the Princess Royal, the Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, Princess Alexandra and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. In the front row facing the audience, the Queen was flanked by the Secretary General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, and the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Theresa May, with the outgoing Chair of CHOGM, the Prime Minister of Malta, the Rt Hon Dr Joseph Muscat, on her right. The backdrop to the now seated Heads of Government was the magnificent, floor to ceiling red velvet curtain, emblazoned with the Royal Coat of Arms and topped with an ornate canopy.
After Scottish singer songwriter, Emelie Sandé, had sung the National Anthem, we were ready to begin, the programme punctuated by a performance of ‘Unwritten’ by Commonwealth Voices and another by the Commonwealth Strings – seven extremely talented violinists – who played ‘Shepherd’s Hey’. The message in all the speeches was clear: the Commonwealth is a valuable institution and it is here to stay. Conceding that there had been ‘difficulties, successes and controversies’ in the modern Commonwealth’s almost seventy-year history, Prime Minister May pointed to the opportunities there were to further Commonwealth countries’ mutual well being, be they big or small. The Secretary-General was keen to emphasise that the Commonwealth was even more fit for purpose and was ready to be used as a spring board for action. The Prime Minister of Malta emphasised the theme of equality, insisting that the LGBTIQ issue should remain on the agenda.
When Her Majesty the Queen got up to speak she received a standing ovation, the warmth in the room at her presence tangible. While making known her wish that HRH the Prince of Wales should succeed her as Head of the Commonwealth, she extolled the institution which has been so integral to her life’s work, referring to her historic declaration in South Africa on her 21st Birthday: “that 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”. Now aged nearly 92, her affection for the Commonwealth has not dimmed. “By continuing to treasure and reinvigorate our associations and activities, I believe we will secure a safer, more prosperous and sustainable world for those who follow us: a world where the Commonwealth’s generosity of spirit can bring its gentle touch of healing and hope to all”, she said.
For all its pomp and splendour, the gaiety of the music, the formal opening was a sober occasion. Part of the agenda was listening to the courageous stories of two of the 240 recipients of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award: Devika Malik from India, born with hemiplegia and who has overcome her disability to become an international para-athelete and PJ Cole from Sierra Leone who, with his parents, welcomed more than 800 child soldiers into their home to give them the chance to restore their lives. Both stories were powerful reminders of the continual challenges so many of the 2.3 billion members of the Commonwealth face.
As I left the Palace and emerged into the bright sunlight, the gun salute was just beginning, the boom of the canon resounding throughout the city. I headed home to await the outcome of the forthcoming two-day deliberations. Would the Heads of Government really be able to further progress in upholding Commonwealth values, as well as constructively addressing issues of climate change, pollution, poverty, inequality, racial and gender discrimination and the omnipresent need for education? Or would the Commonwealth’s detractors find an opportunity to claim that the leaders were ‘talking platitudes’ and the organisation ‘no longer relevant’?
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