World News & Trends: What Lies Ahead for the British Monarchy and Commonwealth?

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What Lies Ahead for the British Monarchy and Commonwealth?

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Why does it matter what happens to the British monarchy?

For most of this century, the news media have told the stories of the personalities and scandals of the British royal family. This is why, understandably, so many people continue to be fascinated with the royal House of Windsor. The essential story to know, however, is that of the major international and historical role of the British monarchy.

A short history

The British monarchy is well over 1,000 years old. The queen can trace her ancestry back more than a millennium. But it is only in this century that the monarchy has taken on the role that is familiar to people today.

After a century of turmoil, civil war and revolution, which reduced the powers of the monarchy, Great Britain was left without a royal head of state when Queen Anne died, in 1714. Some proposed that this was again the time for a comparatively liberal, educated and enlightened nation to rid itself of the expense of a monarchy and replace it with a presidency.

But an earlier experience of a republic had not been a pleasant one. After King Charles I had been executed 65 years previously, he was replaced by a republican form of government under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Although Cromwell was a great man in many respects, there were too many abuses of power under his rule for people to forget. Even after Cromwell's death, when Charles I's son was brought back from exile in France to be a constitutional monarch, and a system of checks and balances was in place that left the king some powers, Parliament remained as the real power in the country.

Determined to find an heir to Queen Anne in 1714, the government found a distant relative in the German electorate of Hanover. The king of Hanover, one of the monarchs who elected the Roman emperor, was asked to move to London and become king of Great Britain and its overseas possessions. The present royal family is directly descended from the German king, George. The family name was changed to Windsor during World War I.

Britain has enjoyed unrivaled stability for almost 300 years under the descendants of that first Hanoverian king. A system of checks and balances between monarchy and Parliament has brought the British political stability during times of upheaval and change throughout the centuries. No other great power enjoyed such stability. Neighboring France has experienced various republics and monarchies. The United States has suffered two internal conflicts, one of which (the Revolutionary War) was itself over the issue of the monarchy.

Britain's stable political system was exported throughout the world to her overseas possessions.

Later, totally independent nations were to embrace it voluntarily. In 1867, when Canada became an independent democratic country, it wanted to retain Britain's Queen Victoria as its own monarch. Taking inspiration from Psalm 72:8, the Canadians decided to call themselves a dominion, with Victoria as queen.

Within the next 50 years, three more dominions were added: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. All were completely independent but shared a common allegiance to the British monarch in what was to become known as the British Commonwealth.

A multitude in unison

These dominions, along with Britain's colonies, were to play a major role in the defense of the free world in the 20th century, a role that today is largely forgotten.

In both world wars, when Britain declared war on Germany, troops were mobilized throughout the empire (Britain's colonies) and commonwealth (the independent dominions). A multitude of nations went to war in complete unison, holding the front line of freedom in defense of Western civilization. Only later did the United States get involved.

This was the strength of the British Empire and British Commonwealth: It was a multitude of nations, held together by the throne, independent nations sharing an allegiance to the royal House of Windsor; and sharing a stable political system built on individual rights and the rule of law, with ideals of freedom and democracy held in common.

Together, they twice gained the victory against tyranny.

Britain was not alone

In the First World War, every self-governing territory in the empire entered the war voluntarily on the side of Great Britain. Canadians fought in France at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli, the South Africans against Germans on the continent of Africa itself.

When Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, there were those who believed the dominions would not rush to her aid. After all, Britain was far away. Canada relied more on ties with the United States for its trade.

But all the nations of the empire and commonwealth again voted to help the mother country in her time of need. These countries all went through both world wars from start to finish.

People often talk of the plight of Britain standing alone in 1940 when defeat seemed inevitable, but such was not the case. The dominions and colonies were all supporting Britain-one quarter of the world's people, a multitude of nations that gave Britain the strength to defy Hitler's Third Reich.

The United States helped Britain with its lend-lease program, but this financial and material help had strict conditions. Britain had to give America her gold reserves and foreign investments, thereby transferring its leadership role to Washington. The dominion of Canada, on the other hand, gave unconditional aid, proportionately more generous than the lend-lease program.

World War II was an imperial war. The British Empire and British Commonwealth fought together as never before. It was a free association of peoples and governments, and it ended in victory. The war demonstrated the importance of the commonwealth to the cause of freedom, the need to remain a multitude of nations dedicated to working together to preserve freedom no matter the cost.

Great Britain and the dominions could have drawn the moral that the commonwealth alone provided the foundation for their greatness and security, individually and collectively.

However, any lessons were quickly forgotten.

Dramatic inward shift

The whole system was to change dramatically after World War II. The British people were tired of fighting seemingly endless conflicts around the world and voted for a political transformation in 1945. Out went the victorious government of Winston Churchill. In came Clement Atlee's Labour government, with a more inward-looking approach.

The dismantling of the British Empire began with independence for the nations of the Indian subcontinent. Instead of spending money administering these far-flung outposts of empire, the British people wanted money spent on themselves. Universal medical coverage, an extensive welfare system and the public ownership of many industries were priorities for the new socialist administration.

Economic decline followed. Whereas Britain was one of the first to recover from the Great Depression and enjoyed a standard of living three or four times higher than that of any other nation in Europe before the war, today it is one of the poorest nations in Western Europe. The decline in its economic fortunes has led to greater insularity and an almost total rejection of its colonies and dominions.

Rapid decolonization took place in the 1950s and 1960s, with Britain divesting itself of almost all of its overseas possessions. In 1961 South Africa was the first dominion to break away, turning itself into a republic outside of the commonwealth.

European obsession

During the 1960s, Britain began looking elsewhere for trade ties, joining the European Community in 1973. Successive British governments, forgetting the loyalty and commitment of the British overseas dominions, turned their backs on them, and became obsessed with Europe.

As Britain pursues closer ties with her European neighbors, what will become of the dominions? Canada is now a member of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA). Australia and New Zealand look increasingly to Asia, and South Africa looks to its neighbors on the African continent.

Meanwhile, independence has been granted to almost all Britain's colonies in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. All these nations chose to remain within the commonwealth, but most decided to become republics, with their own presidents, rather than retaining the queen as their head of state. Although most at some point subsequently rejected democracy and became dictatorships, at least for a time, some have attempted a return to democracy.

The British Commonwealth of Nations was renamed the Commonwealth of Nations. The queen is still the head of the commonwealth, but there is no guarantee that that title will pass to her successor.

Indifferent to freedom

The commonwealth today is altogether different from the British Commonwealth that existed during the first half of this century. The nations that were members of the British Commonwealth shared not only the common bond of loyalty to the crown, but the ideals of democracy, the rule of law and a love of freedom. They were willing to fight together to preserve freedom at any cost.

None of the dominions was directly threatened by Germany and its allies in either of the two world wars, but all the dominions played a major role in helping the mother country in her struggle. They all entered both conflicts within days of Britain declaring war on Germany and were fighting with Britain long before the United States got involved.

The prime ministers of the dominions met regularly with the British prime minister to ensure a close working relationship with all the nations of the commonwealth.

Today the commonwealth is a radically different organization. It is a multicultural 52-member association, including more than one quarter of the world's countries and peoples. For decades, however, the organization was divided over what to do about former member South Africa and its system of racial separation, or apartheid. The year 1994 witnessed control of South Africa pass from white to black African hands. One of the first decisions made by South Africa's new president, Nelson Mandela, was to rejoin the commonwealth.

Some other possible developments: The November 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Auckland, New Zealand, saw the commonwealth expand to 52 members, with the addition of Mozambique and Cameroon. The commonwealth also committed itself to helping Nigeria return to democracy, showing that the commonwealth can still act in unison in defense of freedom

But the modern commonwealth is not the former committed multitude of nations, united in purpose, going forth together in defense of freedom.

End of the monarchy?

No longer do the former dominions look to Britain for leadership. Canada, Australia and New Zealand still retain Queen Elizabeth as their monarch, but Australia is moving toward becoming a republic, to emphasize its increasing ties to Asia. Britain continues to strengthen its European ties. Canada has too many of its own internal problems to care much about the organization.

The queen has worked tirelessly to keep the commonwealth together at a time during which successive British governments have neglected the organization to pursue elusive economic salvation in Europe. Although it is expected that her son, Prince Charles, will be head of the commonwealth if he becomes king, there is no guarantee of that.

With the increasing problems in the House of Windsor, it is likely that commonwealth ties will continue to weaken. It is even possible that the organization will not survive at all after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Without the commonwealth, the world would be a fundamentally different place today. Nazi Germany could not have been held back during the dark days of 1940 and 1941. Without the dominions, Britain would have fallen, the empire and commonwealth would have fallen in disarray, and the United States would have stood alone against what would have been a more powerful Third Reich and its ally, Imperial Japan.

The world, including the United States, owes the commonwealth a debt of gratitude. This multitude of nations has greatly assisted in preserving freedom for much of the world for more than 100 years. GN


Editor's note: In the January issue, our article entitled "Symbolism abounds in transfer of Hong Kong," referred to the alleged rape by three U.S. servicemen against a Japanese civilian on Okinawa as though the charges of rape had been proven. In fact, the guilt or innocence of the three servicemen has not been determined in a court of law. We regret any confusion or misunderstanding caused by our inadvertent omission of the word "alleged" in connection with the involvement of the U.S. servicemen in this incident.