The royal family in South Africa in 1947Princess Margaret, South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Elizabeth on holiday in Drakensberg, South Africa in 1947 [Photo: PA Images / Alamy]

[The 6th of February 2022 will mark the 70th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the British throne and to the position of Head of the Commonwealth. The date will launch a series of events over the next few months to mark the Platinum Anniversary. Commonwealth veteran Sir Peter Marshall starts the Round Table coverage of and reflections on the jubilee with a specially-commissioned personal article.]

“I declare before you all”, Princess Elizabeth said, in that epic broadcast from Cape Town on her twenty-first birthday, nearly seventy-five years ago, “that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service…..” Matchless in itself as was that Act of Dedication, it is what it heralded that loses us not only in wonderment and gratitude, but also in hope and confidence, as together we face an exciting, but exacting, common future.

Some things are easier to recognise than to define. Among them are the personal qualities of which greatness is made. We know without being told that self-discipline is at the heart of it. Likewise we realise that good management of public affairs turns in the main on leadership, grounded in hard work and good will – albeit under posh synonyms such as “expertise” and “commitment”.

Unique though the Queen’s constitutional role has so clearly been, it is perhaps her institutional role that will capture the attention of historians for many a long year. Two years almost to the day after her broadcast, Commonwealth Prime Ministers met in London to ponder the notification by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, of the desire of his country to remain in the Commonwealth, while becoming a republic in the near future.

The four-paragraph formula, which the Commonwealth Prime Ministers devised to address the situation, is one of the greatest texts in the history of diplomacy. In its wake, the King Emperor metamorphosed into “the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth”.

The job description could be said to lack a certain precision “as such”. But it is folk wisdom that the future lies not so much with the job, as with the person who holds it. Never has that down-to-earth proposition been more spectacularly demonstrated than by the seventy-year fulfilment in practice over a period of that great Cape Town promise of service.

The first forty years of the “new” Commonwealth – until the end of apartheid in South Africa – were not a period of uninterrupted intergovernmental sweetness and light: there were difficulties aplenty. Yet these were moderated to some extent by the realisation that the non-governmental part of the equation was very much to the point. The Commonwealth is about people, and about nations, rather than about states. It is obviously something more than a novel way of doing international business. It has overall been “a force for good”. In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, it “can bring a touch of healing to a troubled world”. It was noticeably constructive in mitigating the effects of the long-running rift between the “developed” countries of the “North” and the “developing” countries of the “South”.

“Commonwealth is as Commonwealth does” is a handy slogan. Yet there comes a point where we need to think in terms of “Commonwealth does as Commonwealth is”. The Commonwealth Charter was put together in 2012, and signed by the Queen on behalf of us all on Commonwealth Day, 2013. It is not difficult to see in its declared priorities the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN General Assembly at summit level two years later.

When the idea of my joining the Commonwealth Secretariat was first mooted, Mrs Thatcher did not conceal her lack of enthusiasm. “The Commonwealth is not an entity”¸ she said. No-one could say that now.

At the last of the “Imperial Conferences” a century ago, Arthur Balfour insisted that “consultation was the life blood of the Commonwealth”. Today, David Howell aptly describes it as “the mother of all networks”: not, be it noted, a static network such as a city underground railway but a hyperconnectivity-driven, open-ended, open-sided, common quest for the common good.

The Queen has on several occasions observed that the Commonwealth is the face of the future. Never before has there been a greater need for this key service to be rendered to humankind.

This points to a third element: family monarchy, as well as constitutional monarchy and institutional monarchy. The notion of “family” has long been associated with the Commonwealth. It reflects the hybrid – and elusive – nature of the nation-state.

It helps us to understand the imaginative evolution of the Commonwealth. Its member states have to a great extent been built on existing or nascent nationhood. The concept of nationhood is a constant and salutary reminder that what we have and hold in common is much more important than the substance of disagreement at any particular juncture. It is in the family that we can nurture that sense of proportion which too easily escapes embattled statehood.

I was bowling past Buckingham Palace in a taxi one evening. The taxi driver remarked simply: “she puts herself out”. That says it all.

Sir Peter Marshall was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General from 1983 to 1988. He was the President of the Joint Commonwealth Societies’ Council, as well as Chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a former British diplomat and has served as a Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

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