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Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at a civic ceremony in New Delhi during the Royal Tour of India, circa January 1961. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The Queen and the world: Rule Britannia

The Queen and the world: Rule Britannia


Richard Lambert examines how the Queen navigated the world of international politics as head of state and head of the Commonwealth

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Richard Lambert, who was Chair of the British Museum and editor of the Financial Times from 1991 to 2001 reflects on her 70-year reign and the ways in which society changed under her rule. 


Queen Elizabeth was born in April 1926, very close to the moment when the British Empire reached its maximum scale. Britain’s economy had been wrecked by war, and its military power was not what it once had been. But it still ruled over nearly a quarter of the planet and a similar proportion of its population – roughly 450 million people.

Her grandfather was called emperor as well as king, and had the aura of majesty that came with his position at the top of the largest empire the world had ever seen. And as a teenager, she saw in the Second World War how troops from across the globe had rallied round the union flag to support her father, King and country, in their hour of need. 

This was the world in which she grew up, and which shaped her ideas about her future role. 

Queen Elizabeth II inspects men of the newly-renamed Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment, Royal West African Frontier Force, 1956

April 21 1947 marked her 21st birthday. She spent it in Cape Town, South Africa, and from there she made a radio broadcast to the Empire. 

“I welcome the opportunity to speak to all the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire, wherever they live, whatever race they come from, and whatever language they speak… As I speak to you today from Cape Town I am six thousand miles from the country where I was born. But I am certainly not six thousand miles from home. Everywhere I have travelled… my parents, my sister and I have been taken to the heart of their people and made to feel that we are just as much at home here as if we had lived among them all our lives.

“That is the great privilege belonging to our place in the world-wide commonwealth…  I am thinking especially today of all the young men and women who were born about the same time as myself and have grown up like me in terrible and glorious years of the second world war.

I declare before you all 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.”

Less than four months later, India – the jewel in the crown – achieved its independence. Dozens of other countries followed over the next 30 years, leaving the Empire and, for the most part, joining the Commonwealth. And the majesty of the crown was inevitably dulled as Britain turned into a middle ranking power, often uncertain of its role in the world.

But she remained true to her promise. The Commonwealth which she led would very likely have collapsed on a number of occasions without her determined support. More than that, at the time of her death, she was still head of state of 15 countries including Canada and Australia. 

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh with Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru (left) and Krishna Menon (right) at the Beating the Retreat ceremony during the Royal tour, 1961

And she was routinely described as the United Kingdom’s most important soft power asset, someone who could attract large crowds wherever in the world she happened to visit, and in whose presence the most powerful presidents and potentates longed to be seen.

But was there a downside in all this? Did the pomp and circumstance of the Palace – the military bands, the golden coach, the glittering jewels – contribute to great power illusions and to the idea of British exceptionalism which led among other things to extravagant defence commitments and encouraged a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the European Union?

Historian Caroline Elkins argues that the British have managed to gloss over the dark side of their imperial history – such as the Amritsar massacre of 1919, and the Mau Mau atrocities in the 1950s – and that memories of empire fired up the fantasies of those Brexiteers who imagined that the commonwealth could somehow replace continental Europe as the United Kingdom’s main trading partner. The Queen was the embodiment of Britain and its commonwealth, and must even unwittingly have played a part in that narrative.

Queen Elizabeth II meets Maoris in New Zealand, 1977

The Commonwealth was certainly one of her highest priorities – the destination of hundreds of state visits and the object of her unswerving support. Three episodes show the strength of her engagement. 

A state visit to Ghana had been planned for 1961. Kwame Nkrumah had been the first black African to lead his country to independence, and subsequently to move towards single-party rule. The atmosphere was tense in the run up to the Royal visit. Nkrumah arrested 50 members of the opposition; a bomb went off in Accra. The great question was whether the trip should be cancelled. Prime Minister Macmillan was in a quandary: he was terrified of harm coming to the Queen, but also fearful of the diplomatic consequences of her not turning up.

She made her position clear. As Macmillan recorded in his diary, she was impatient about “the attitude towards her to treat her as a woman, and a film star or mascot . . . She means to be a Queen, and not a puppet”.

The visit went ahead, and was a triumph. She was photographed dancing with President Nkrumah at a state ball – an image that flashed around the world and, among other things, caused outrage in apartheid South Africa.

A second highly charged moment came in 1979 when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was due to be held in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, at a time of intense violence across the border in what was then Rhodesia. Ahead of the meeting, New Zealand premier Robert Muldoon announced that both he and Margaret Thatcher were concerned a Royal visit might be too risky – there was real anxiety about the possibility of an attack on the Queen’s aircraft as it approached or left Lusaka.

The Palace immediately made it clear that the trip was going ahead whatever. Former Commonwealth Secretary General Chief Emeka Anyaoku cites this as a moment when – if handled badly – the whole institution could have collapsed. 

Dancing with President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah during a reception at the State House in Accra, 1961

Another came in 1986, when the Commonwealth was struggling to agree on sanctions to impose on apartheid South Africa. This fraught issue was to poison relationships until Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990, with Mrs Thatcher strongly opposed to the idea of curbing trade.

At a crucial moment in the debate, a group of key commonwealth nations gathered in London, and at what was called a working dinner at the Palace ahead of the meeting, the Queen made it clear that the Commonwealth could not be allowed to fail. Somehow an agreement was reached, and Mrs Thatcher compromised on sanctions.

Was it all worthwhile? Most people would be hard pressed to say what the Commonwealth actually did: the British government has never paid it much attention, not all its member states are models of good government, and its leadership in recent years has been unimpressive. 

But on balance, the answer to the question is “yes”. The organisation today consists of 54 countries, and has actually been growing in number with the arrival of countries that had never actually been under British rule.

The break-up of empire could have been more rancorous without its presence: the Queen retained the affection of Commonwealth leaders even when they were hotly opposed to her Government’s policies.

At a market stall during a royal tour of Hong Kong, 1975

It’s one of the few groups in which mature and emerging economies come together with a common agenda. And there are obvious issues in which it could still play a part – climate change and vaccine diplomacy being two examples.

Aside from the Commonwealth, the Queen also played a positive role in foreign affairs as head of state of the United Kingdom. Her ability to develop personal relationships with international leaders opened many diplomatic doors over the years, and on occasions did much more than that.

Here she had a number of advantages. One that came increasingly important over the years was her longevity. There was a golden thread linking her to great monarchs of the past – it wasn’t for nothing that people talked about a second Elizabethan age at the time of her coronation. But more than that, her story encompassed wartime leaders – Churchill, Eisenhower, de Gaulle – and many more. She had known 13 out of the last 14 US presidents – the exception was LBJ – and had got on well with nearly all of them.

Another quality was her discretion, and her political neutrality. Her interlocutors knew they could be absolutely certain that there would be no gossip about their discussion.

She was fluent in French. And she had a charming personal style with people she liked. She went riding with Ronald Reagan in Windsor Great Park – the British ambassador in Washington made it clear that the president saw this as just about the main point of his trip to the United Kingdom.

It didn’t hurt that this happy occasion was being planned in 1982 at the very moment when Britain was seeking US backing for its campaign in the Falkland Islands.

She got on well with the Obamas. Prime Minister David Cameron wrote that they had loved their state visit to the UK in 2011, and he went on “I knew how much that was down to the relationship they struck up with our head of state. The warmth of my visit to Washington in March 2012 was, I felt, largely due to the success of their London trip”.

Queen Elizabeth II is given a tour of Yosemite National Park, California, 1983

There’s a letter from her in President Eisenhower’s Library in Kansas. It’s dated January 1960, and it’s formal in style, starting “Dear Mr President” and ending “yours sincerely, Elizabeth R”. But the content is unexpected.

The Queen wrote: “Seeing a picture of you in today’s newspaper standing in front of a barbecue grilling quail, reminded me that I had never sent you the recipe of the drop scones which I promised you at Balmoral.”

The letter puts that right. She writes that “though the quantities are for 16 people, when there are fewer, I generally put in less flour and milk but use the other ingredients as stated.”

She ends with a useful tip for the president. “I think the mixture needs a great deal of beating while making, and shouldn’t stand about for too long before cooking”.

She was sometimes criticised for not appearing to smile much on her royal tours, but she almost never fell asleep in the line of duty. The one recorded exception came on a visit to Dusseldorf in 2004, when she appeared to nod off briefly in a lecture on the medical use of magnets.

And of course as well as the informal she could lay on the big state occasion. President Xi and President Trump didn’t have that much in common, but both attempted to move heaven and earth to get a carriage trip up the Mall to the Palace on their state visits.

That’s one definition of soft power. Over the years, the possibility of a state visit was used as a valuable diplomatic tool by successive British governments.

Her state banquets were also something special. Biographer Robert Hardman reports that a former master of the Royal Household once told her of his concern that a particular dish could get cold more quickly if it was served on gold plate. She assured him: “People come here not to eat hot food, but to eat off gold plate”.

Queen Elizabeth II (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping on the first official day of the Chinese president’s state visit, 2015

I remember a state banquet for France’s President Chirac in 1996. The service was brisk and the food was nothing special. But it was an awesome experience, made the more so at its conclusion when bagpipers marched round the long tables blasting the chandeliers with their wailing. Arguments about British beef exports to the continent were a subject of contention at the time: they could become less intense after occasions like this..

In May 2011 she made the first trip to the Republic of Ireland by a British monarch. The visit was full of symbolism: laying a wreath at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance; walking out on to the pitch at Croke Park, the home of Gaelic football where the British had killed 14 civilian spectators in a revenge shooting in 1920; above all, her speech at the State Banquet at Dublin Castle, once the seat of British rule. 

“With the benefit of historical hindsight,” she said,” we can all see things we would wish had been done differently or not at all”.

David Cameron wrote “It was incredibly moving to witness our monarch speak of forgiveness – not least as her own cousin, Lord Mountbatten, had been murdered by the IRA in 1979. Every carefully chosen word healed another wound of history. It was,” he concluded, “a lesson in reconciliation from the best.”

More followed from this initiative. The following year came her handshake with Martin McGuiness, the former commander in the Irish Republican Army – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.

This example is the best counter to the argument that the long reign of Queen Elizabeth did nothing more than encourage the country to bask in a Disneyland of unreality. Yes, there were all those busbies, and those palace officials with weird sounding job titles. 

But she did her job with much more consistency and integrity than we have come to expect from our political leaders. Her constant presence was a comfort during years of rapid and sometimes unsettling political change. Her personal relationships with dozens of international leaders were of real value to the country. And on the big occasion, such as the Dublin visit, she could help to shift diplomatic relations on to a better track.

The Queen with Nelson Mandela during her state visit, 1995

What happens next?

With the Commonwealth, much will depend on how King Charles performs as its head. This is not a hereditary position, but no one dissented in 2018 when the Queen made it clear she wanted her son to take on the role. He will have to demonstrate as yet unproven diplomatic skills to give the institution the fresh impetus that it needs if it’s to play a constructive part in world affairs.

Where change is much more likely is in the role of the new King as head of state of far flung countries around the world. Barbados became a republic in 2021, and Jamaica is heading in the same direction.

There isn’t a strong republican movement in Canada, but Australia is a different story. It voted against republican status in 1999 not mainly out of loyalty to the Queen, but more because of a failure to agree on the alternative.

It now has another republican president, and although a second vote is unlikely before the next election in 2025, the direction of travel is clear.

Other countries are heading in the same direction, and why not? The current arrangements can be an embarrassment for the royal family itself, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge found on their ill-judged tour of the Caribbean in the spring of 2022. The couple were met with protests in Belize; the prime minister of Jamaica told them that the country would be moving on to form a republic; and in Bahamas the royals were urged to issue a full apology for Britain’s role in the slave trade.

Nigerian tribesmen greet the Queen and Prince Philip, 1956

Back at home, the new King won’t have the same majesty that his mother inherited from her imperial forebears and worked so hard to sustain. Those big state occasions may not feel quite so magnificent: the crowds may not be quite so enthusiastic. The world in which his mother was crowned is gone forever. But he will still be holding the golden thread of history. And as the enormous throngs of people who turned out for his mother’s platinum jubilee showed, the crown remains a central part of British identity.

It’s likely to remain so for a good while to come.

Credits: This episode was written by Richard Lambert, produced and sound designed by Oliver Sanders, and the executive producer was Jasper Corbett

Photographs Fox Photos, Popperfoto, Anwar Hussein, Central Press, George Rose, Gamma-Rapho, Bettmann Archive & Getty Images