When the Queen died, the tributes were long, effusive and heartfelt. But one notion stood out. “She was the nation’s greatest diplomat,” Prime Minister, Liz Truss, told MPs. “Her visits to post-apartheid South Africa and to the Republic of Ireland showed a unique ability to transcend difference and heal division.” The former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, went further, describing her as “the greatest statesman and diplomat of all”.
But what does that mean? What kind of diplomat was she? The first and most obvious answer is to point to the Commonwealth. It is often forgotten that the Queen’s famous promise in Cape Town in 1947 – “I declare before you all that my whole life, be it long or short, shall be devoted to your service” – was followed thus: “…and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” In future years that meant the Commonwealth of Nations. The Queen was present at its birth and made it her life’s work to help it grow and develop. As such, the Commonwealth was perhaps one of the Queen’s greatest achievements. She gave the organisation life and continuity, she sprinkled it with stardust, and held it together when differences threatened to tear it apart. And crucially, she made the Commonwealth relevant by ensuring it transcended day to day politics while still engaging with the biggest issues of the day.
Take, for example, the crisis over Rhodesia in 1979. The former British colony had unilaterally declared its independence, the white minority clinging to power to try to prevent black majority rule. There was a crucial meeting of Commonwealth heads of government in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. The Queen – who attended the meeting against the advice of her security advisers – knew all the key players well. The newly elected British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, did not. The Queen played a key role in calming tempers, fostering a mood of optimism and reconciliation, without ever lobbying for any particular political solution.
She was better informed that perhaps anyone else in the world, the only person in the modern era ever to have read secret intelligence assessments every week for 70 years
But the Commonwealth these days is not perhaps what it could be. It has lacked leadership and struggled to define its role in the twenty-first century. Its members have at times been divided by geography, wealth and values. It has struggled to be a powerful geopolitical player.
So where else then might the Queen have made her diplomacy felt? Liz Truss pointed to her visit to Ireland in 2011. This was the first time a British monarch had been to Ireland for 100 years. The visit – and her historic handshake with the former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness – was seen as a huge step forward not just in normalising relations but also in promoting reconciliation.
The former Conservative leader, William Hague, wrote in The Times: “The United Kingdom benefits greatly from the power of a respected monarchy to elevate a commitment to the highest level, to give the strongest possible seal of approval to the work of others, to show beyond doubt that a dispute is over, or a friendship renewed — and that was what we were seeing in Ireland that day.”