The Accession Proclamation – 6 February 1952 [Source: YouTube]
The Round Table Journal was founded in 1910. Today, it is the UK’s oldest international affairs journal.
The 107-year-old Journal had writers with a front row seat at the dissolution of empire and the growth of the organisation which became the Commonwealth. This included Queen Elizabeth II’s Accession in February 1952.
The Round Table Journal’s articles chart the coining of the term ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ and they give a contemporary perspective as the UK’s colonies became independent and a new post-war structure grew around this family of nations.
The Round Table’s website will be seeking to delve into the annals of the publication now known as The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.
Think of this exercise as a digital version of the trip to the microfiche area and the dusty part of the university library.
We hope that these explorations will provide insights into events which took place around key dates in the formation and the running of the Commonwealth, written by people who helped its foundation, served in its day-to-day running and also stepped up to the plate during times of crisis.
Accession and the Commonwealth
We start the archive trawling with the Queen’s accession in 1952 when, according to writing at the time, the term ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ was first coined.
In 2008, New Zealand historian, William David McIntyre, then at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, wrote for Round Table about the expansion of the Commonwealth and how it had reached its structure by 2007.
His research into the actual coining of the term ‘Head of Commonwealth’ in 1952 shines a spotlight on an issue which Commonwealth leaders still discuss to our present times – is the British monarch automatically head of the Commonwealth?
Here is his account as a Commonwealth constitutional and military history expert of what took place in 1952:
‘When the King went into hospital in September 1951, the Cabinet Secretary took the precaution of brieﬁng High Commissioners of newly independent Commonwealth countries about procedure on the death of a monarch. High Commissioners would be invited to sign the accession proclamation. At a meeting on 22 September 1951 the Pakistan and Ceylon High Commissioners indicated that they would attend and sign the proclamation. Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner, said he would attend but, as representative of a republic, could not sign a proclamation couched in traditional form. If, however, ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ was included he could. Sir Norman Brook took this suggestion to a meeting of senior Whitehall oﬃcials who agreed that an alternative accession proclamation should be drafted. On 6 February 1952 Churchill’s cabinet met twice, in the morning to hear of the King’s demise, and in the afternoon to consider the accession proclamation and they approved the new version. At an Accession Council at 5pm, attended by Commonwealth representatives, Elizabeth II (who was ﬂying home from Kenya) was proclaimed ‘‘Queen of this Realm and her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith’’. A full Accession Council met with the Queen two days later, after which the proclamation was read in public outside St James’s Palace. The role of the Commonwealth representatives in the proceedings was explained by the Commonwealth Relations Oﬃce as: ‘‘It … seems appropriate that the opportunity of signing the Proclamation should be given not only to UK citizens, but also to citizens of the other Commonwealth countries, which, whether accepting the sovereignty of the new monarch or not, recognise Him or Her as Head of the Commonwealth’’.
‘Two days after the accession proclamation, Nehru’s cable of condolence to the Queen on the loss of her father and welcoming her as the new Head of the Commonwealth, was published in The Times.
‘In all this, there appears no evidence of separate or personal choice. The Headship went with the Crown, and when, ﬁve years later, Whitehall did a ‘Demise of the Crown’ exercise, and drafted an accession proclamation for Charles III, it included ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ as a matter of course.
‘Before the Coronation in 1953, an informal meeting of prime ministers and other representatives held during the Commonwealth Economic Conference in December 1952, was told that the Statute of Westminster requirement that all parliaments needed to approve changes to the royal title was only part of the preamble of the Act and not the operative sections, so that new titles would be a matter for each separate parliament.
‘The Headship was not discussed it seems, at this time, nor was it ever deﬁned beyond being the symbol of the free association of the members.’
India’s role in forming the early Commonwealth
Another foray into the Round Table archives gives an insight into India’s role in formulating the term ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ for the 1952 accession proclamation.
This is an excerpt from a 1999 Round Table editorial 1949-1999: Fifty years of renewing Commonwealth:
‘When in October 1951 King George VI was about to undergo a serious operation the CRO deemed it important to explain to the High Commissioners in London the customary procedure on the demise of the British monarch, and in particular to discuss – however tentatively – the arrangements whereby High Commissioners were likely to be invited to the meeting of the Accession Council and asked to sign the Proclamation of the new sovereign. Charles Dixon was asked to undertake this task in relation to the High Commissioner for India, Krishna Menon. Accordingly Dixon saw him at Menon’s hotel on a Saturday morning.
‘After Dixon had explained the procedure Menon said that he would be only too glad to attend in the same way as other High Commissioners. Dixon pointed out to him that the Proclamation, which had been in use for the past three or four centuries without alteration, contained some expressions which were not suitable for a Republican country such as India had become. Menon replied that he would be sorry if he could not show his respect for the new Sovereign by signing the Proclamation, and asked whether it would not be possible to modify the wording in some respects. In particular he hoped it would be possible to include the expression’ Head of the Commonwealth’ for the authorship of which he seemed inclined to lay claim.
‘Dixon, characteristically, expressed considerable doubt as to whether it would be possible to interfere with a time honoured and established instrument of this kind, but promised that the suggestion would be considered.
‘As a result, the form of the Proclamation was discussed by a small meeting of senior officials, presided over by the Secretary to the Cabinet, Sir Norman Brook. This meeting recommended a slightly different wording, including the expression `Head of the Commonwealth’.
‘When the time came in February 1952, this was approved by Ministers, and adopted, and then the High Commissioner for India – just as Krishna Menon was being succeeded in London by B. G. Kher – saw no difficulty in signing.’
The above article is also useful for an insight into how the switch was made to Marlborough House as the Commonwealth grew beyond meetings in the Cabinet Room of Downing Street.
Film – Queen Elizabeth’s return home from Kenya following the death of her father in February 1952 [source: British Monarchy]
1952 and all that
In another of the Round Table’s 1952 volumes, a series of editorials considers the coronation and the role of the Commonwealth.
Here’s an excerpt from part two of a series of articles on this topic:
‘The great new idea which has never been adequately expressed in the coronation is the evolution of the British Empire into a group of independent kingdoms, with one associated republic, which are linked together by virtue of accepting as the head of their society the wearer of the Crown of Saint Edward. The ceremony in which that crown is bestowed is a solemn rededication of the people in the person of their Sovereign.
‘If it is to bear that meaning, it is clear that “the people” for this purpose are not to be thought of as the inhabitants of the island at the heart of which the rite happens to be celebrated, but all throughout the globe who regard the Queen’s person as the symbol of their unity. The symbol is not primarily political; if it were, there might be a good reason for holding a separate coronation in each politically separate state of the Commonwealth. The Queen is more truly to be seen as the representative of social unity; and since peoples who are ruled by different Parliaments and laws may still be members of one great family, it is natural that they shall all acknowledge, not merely a single Sovereign, but an indivisible crown. But if that is so, they have a just right, and indeed a duty, to share in the conferring of it.’
From: The Coronation and the Commonwealth II (1952)
Part three: The Coronation and the Commonwealth – Retrospect and Prospect (1952)
Why it all worked
Part three of the Round Table deliberations on the accession looked at why the 1952 accession and coronation process had worked so smoothly:
‘By the time of the accession of Elizabeth II, however, all such disturbing factors had ceased to operate. A nation and Commonwealth that had lately confronted and survived great dangers under the leadership of the historic Crown were profoundly conscious of their unity at a deep level on which the necessary divisions of party, much milder now than in former reigns, were not relevant. A princess long known and loved, whom the entire Commonwealth had confidently accepted as the symbol of its future hopes, had all the world on her side when she came to take seisin of her dominion. Her known dedication, her youth, her grace and charm, which in the supreme sacramental moment were visibly transfigured to spiritual beauty, uplifted the hearts of all. In the dark and stormy aftermath of world war, through which the Commonwealth still painfully struggles, there was a renewed vision of light ahead.’
The article also argued against thoughts of the Queen taking part in multiple coronations across Commonwealth states:
‘It has been useful to consider this theoretical case for multiple coronations, not because any responsible authority in the Commonwealth has advocated it, but because the consideration of why multiple coronations would be inadequate has thrown emphasis on the true nature of the single coronation which has to be shaped to the needs of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is many States but one society. The coronation is the dedication of the society rather than of the States. In that sense the nations, of which the States are the political organs, can all take part in it without compromising their independence. In moulding its forms so as to provide for their active participation it is social rather than political realities that have to be symbolically expressed.’
These are just the tip of the archive iceberg as the Round Table archives tackle the break-up of empire, the formation and crisis periods that shaped the modern Commonwealth.
The Queen marks the (blue) sapphire anniversary of her accession on 6 February, 2017 – the date when her father George VI died. At the age of 25, she was flown back from Kenya to take the accession vows. Her official coronation took place in June 1953. The Queen is the first UK monarch in British history to mark a 65-year anniversary on the throne.
Below are links to other articles which look at Queen Elizabeth’s accession in February 1952 and related events.
This article has extracted some key parts of archived articles. You can access DavidMcIntyre’s full paper on the Round Table Journal website.
Other related articles by W. David McIntyre:
Britain and the creation of the Commonwealth secretariat
The admission of small states into the Commonwealth