British Diplomacy in the Queen's Reign: 1952-2002

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, August 2002 | Go to article overview

British Diplomacy in the Queen's Reign: 1952-2002


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review


THERE have been four Queens in modem British history (excluding Mary, the wife of William of Orange who ruled jointly with her husband): Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne, Queen Victoria, and our present Queen, Elizabeth II. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, we stood on the threshold of a glorious future and began to acquire the first British Empire, that of the New World. During the reign of Queen Anne, thanks to a Churchill, we stamped our image indelibly on the European continent; henceforwards Britain, and British arms in particular, would be a major factor in any calculations that its rulers might make (British seamanship had been such since the time of Henry VIII). In the reign of Queen Victoria we reached the apogee of Empire, a new Empire based on India, the Dominions and colonies. Its summation was the Diamond Jubilee of 1897. It provoked Kipling to write 'Recessional' in which he warned against complacency and 'jingoism'. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth U we have withdrawn from the world we once re garded as our own. Our Empire has vanished and only a few tiny islands are left from our colonial possessions. We are back where we started five hundred years ago, among our own kind. The world beyond our shores is once again the world beyond our shores. One no longer expects to find the restaurant tables at Rutba, an obscure frontier post in the Syrian desert between Baghdad and Amman, laid with clean cloths and heavy EPNS cutlery with fish cakes for breakfast. Indeed there is no restaurant at all worthy of the name.

Each of our three previous Queens was a character in her own right. Each has stamped her personality on her reign. Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria are normally regarded as pre-eminent. Queen Anne was passionately addicted to hunting, which would be disapproved of today. Since no horse could be found to bear her weight she used to career about after hounds in Windsor Great Park in a small chariot. She left an image, at any rate.

When Queen Elizabeth II began her reign, modesty and self-effacement were still regarded as necessary virtues; it was 'not done' to be seen as 'pushy'. Decent people, it was held, kept themselves to themselves and had respect for the privacy of others. Today self-projection and the cult of personality are seen as indispensible qualities for advancement and a means of keeping oneself in the public eye outside whose appraising gaze lies extinction. The Queen and the Royal Family live constantly under the intense and searching light of the media. Yet the constitution makes it virtually impossible for her to project her personality as her predecessors did. She cannot attempt to manipulate the media as nunisters, pop stars and footballers do. Not that I think it would be much to her taste, given the prevailing mores of her generation. More importantly her personal image is of little importance to her except insofar as what she does and how she does it influence the way people perceive the Monarchy. The events of h er long reign have not had the dramatic quality of those of the first Elizabethan age and of the Victorian when things were clearly on the up and British successes were closely identified with the sovereign. The whole trend of British history since her accession has been comparatively downbeat.

Though Great Britain is no longer a world power in the sense of her pre-war eminence she undoubtedly still has an important role to play internationally. British people are still concemed about what goes on outside their country and not only because events elsewhere might affect their choice of holiday. The contribution, financial and in kind, made by people of all classes to international relief work and charities is one example. I recall that Sudan in 1990 looked as if it would experience a famine almost as severe as the one which occurred two years earlier, with very grave consequences for an already destitute population. …

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