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'From Empire to Commonwealth'

SPECIAL DAY: Laurie Philpotts (right) and Allan Wilmot (centre) of the West Indian Ex-serviceman and Women's Association, with The Queen

THE COMMONWEALTH has been at the heart of the 60 years reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Indeed, her reign has been contemporary with the development from Empire to Commonwealth.

When she came to the throne in 1952 the Commonwealth comprised a few white dominions and the newly-independent countries of the Indian sub-continent and today it embraces some 54 free states of varying ethnic, political and social complexion, religions and cultural diversity. Whatever their political orientation the Queen has provided a point of common focus.

Caribbean people have been particularly patriotic and loyal to the concept of the monarchy. Those who joined up for service in the Second World War, a good number of whom are happily still with us, but many more, unfortunately, have passed on, did so to answer the call of “king and country” in the defence of liberty against tyranny.

Serve

It was their “king and country”, as much of that of anybody else, and was synonymous with that freedom for which they gave life, limb and aspirations to protect. They had done the same in the previous War, and their children can be found in the British armed forces wherever they are summoned to serve.

In the case of Jamaica, whatever are the very understandable reasons for wanting an independent head of state, a president, few that I know, if any, hold that in any way against their queen, Elizabeth II.

Even if a republic were to be declared overnight in Jamaica or the United Kingdom even the most ardent supporters of the new regime would see the then Elizabeth (Mountbatten) Windsor as having the necessary qualities of being as admirable head of state as she is for the present – and, of course, she would remain Head of the Commonwealth.

That has not come about by chance. There is hardly a part of the Commonwealth that she has not visited and nowhere that has not been touched by her concern.

These past 60 years have not been easy. You need think only of the riots at Notting Hill, the New Cross fire, the rise and (fortunately) fall of racist and extremist movements and the inflammatory oratory of politicians, economic recession and, in some cases, social repression, and a country and Commonwealth facing uncertain and difficult choices.

At least, that is what you would gather from politicians of all parties who seem so often to be unsure of the way they are going, where they want to go, and what they want to do when they get there.

Confidence

In contrast Queen Elizabeth II has given an impression of assurance in almost all she has undertaken – confidence, consolation and compassion in her dealings with the people whether it is in public celebration or private achievement, public tragedy or private grief.

Often enough a royal visit, a word of solace or encouragement, a smile and a handshake, have taken the edge out of a delicate situation. Her Majesty is welcome as much, if not more, in the urban inner-city of lost dreams and opportunities denied as she is in the affluent rural estates. She continues to go into many areas in which the leaders of society, politics and commerce deign not to tread.

The award of an MBE (or similar honour) or invitation to a royal garden party at Buckingham Palace is still highly valued – even by the most vociferous anti-monarchist: well, how many people do you know who have refused to accept one when offered?

At other times the Queen has provided an example to the nation “just by being there”. In my childhood polio was still a rampant and killer disease but we were unsure whether the newly-produced vaccine would be worse than the condition itself. When the Queen had her own children, Charles and Anne, vaccinated our parents were re-assured – “they wouldn’t give it to her children if there was any danger” – and, as a result, polio was eliminated as an epidemic.

migrants

Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne just four years after the arrival of the Empire Windrush taking the first set of migrants from the Caribbean. She has been there for almost as long as there has been a West Indian heritage community in this country.

She was proclaimed monarch in the year that Jamaica’s athletes set a new world record for the men’s 4 x 400 metres relay at the Olympic Games in Helsinki and she has survived to see Usain Bolt and his generation of world-beaters; she has seen several ages in the invincibility of West Indian cricket (and is one of the few able to remember it!); she has witnessed the birth of Reggae as well as Rock ‘n’ Roll and punk (and of independent, satellite and digital television); she has reigned through the age of the wireless into that of the computer; she has followed former erstwhile colonies grow into maturity and their citizens going on to achieve Nobel Prize laurels and many other international awards of distinction; and she has ruled while the United Kingdom has developed from a monochrome to the multi-faceted but essentially cohesive country that it is today.

That is certainly something for us to celebrate.

How much of that is due to Queen Elizabeth II, herself, and how much to the people? Surely, it has been a partnership – that’s the point. When her father, King George VI (and the Queen Mother), visited the bombed-out East End of London somebody in the crowd shouted out “Thank God for a Good King” to which he replied instantaneously “Thank God for a Good People”.

I know well the arguments against monarchy in general, and, indeed, have some sympathy, but would these last 60 years have been the same if somebody else had been at the helm – a (here today, gone tomorrow) politician, an autocrat or a less responsible royal, and we can all think of numerous examples of those categories.

No, I think not. And that, too, is a cause for celebration.

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