‘Queen Elizabeth II was the tip of the spear of Britain’s soft power’

Morris Kiruga
By Morris Kiruga
East Africa Editor of The Africa Report

Posted on Monday, 19 September 2022 18:10

Huge portraits of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Ghana's President Kwame Nkrumah are displayed in Accra, Nov. 9, 1961, as the city prepares for the arrival of the British monarch on a state visit to Ghana. The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, arrived in Accra by plane from London later that that day. (AP Photo, File)

Dancing with Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah was not just about a good jig, it was also staking her kingdom’s claim with these new rulers. Plus, the Queen got to shock white sensibilities by dancing with a very African man at a time when apartheid was in vogue in Southern Africa, and racial segregation was still legal in the US.

After Winston Churchill’s funeral on 30 January 1965, Buckingham Palace invited all visiting heads of state and government to a luncheon. All except one.

The exception was Ian Smith, the prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, a unique self-governing British colony in Southern Africa. Smith represented a white minority government that was actively foiling Britain’s plan of a rapid decolonisation and most importantly, it is ‘no independence without majority rule’ policy. Smith and his government were involved in often acrimonious negotiations and discussions with Britain that would, later that year, result in Rhodesia’s disastrous unilateral declaration of independence.

Smith had known, from the moment he arrived at London Airport the day before, that he was not invited to the luncheon, but he didn’t care much about it. Therefore, after the funeral, as everyone else headed to the palace, he returned to his hotel to have lunch. A royal aide in full uniform then arrived at his door. He conveyed Queen Elizabeth II’s apologies and invited him to accompany him immediately to the palace. Smith, in a negotiation with the British government, but fiercely loyal to the Crown, accepted and left for the luncheon, where the queen apologised again for the slight.

Later that year, Smith and his cabinet signed a declaration of independence that was modelled on the American declaration of independence. However, it was not a complete break from the British empire; instead, they wanted a fully independent dominion in the style of Canada and Australia. To illustrate this, they declared Queen Elizabeth II as the ‘Queen of Rhodesia’. Her portrait hung prominently behind them as they signed the document, which even ended with the words ‘God save the queen’.

‘Loyal rebellion’

This ‘loyal rebellion’ was also designed to work like the ongoing British decolonisation process elsewhere on the continent, which had begun with the freeing of Ghana seven years earlier. In each country, the process was often the same. First, the major parties were identified and invited to Lancaster House to hammer out their independence constitutions. In each of the first laws, at the start, the head of the government was now from the majority, but the head of the state remained the queen, but now styled as ‘queen of Kenya’ ‘queen of Nigeria’ and so on. Oaths of allegiance were still sworn in her name, but she could now only be advised by the new countries’ ministers.

The Duchess of Kent, seated centre on dais, reads a message from the Queen of England in the Parliament House at Accra, Ghana, on March 6, 1957. (AP Photo)

This template was easy to follow, and for the new African leaders, some of whom were openly Anglophiles, it worked. It allowed them to claim and exercise independence while retaining a deep connection to Britain, which was now shifting from a colonising empire to a world power with a ‘sphere of influence.’ They needed an orderly transition with a systematic handover of power, continued technical and financial support, and some hand-holding on this new world stage on which they were now being thrusted into as equals with their former masters.

‘We have acquired our own Queen’

In this crucial job then, Queen Elizabeth II was the tip of the spear of Britain’s soft power and the face of its ceremony and pageantry. Some of the monarchical kowtowing that accompanied this process would seem problematic today, but Britain’s biggest power as an empire, after its guns and sheer ruthlessness, was cultural, exemplified by the church and the crown. “Your majesty has acquired a new, proud and devoted people. We have acquired our own Queen who now knows us as we know her,” Sir Milton Margai, Sierra Leone’s first prime minister, said in 1961.

During her visit to Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah said: “Whatever else is blown into the limbo of history [by the winds of change], the personal regard and affection which we have for Your Majesty will remain unaffected.” The next year, Daniel arap Moi (who would be Kenya’s future president) named his twins Philip and Doris Elizabeth, after the royal couple.

Queen Elizabeth II is partnered by Ghana President Kwame Nkrumah as they dance the popular Ghana music known as "High Life" at a farewell ball given in honor of the Queen and her husband at the state house in Accra, Ghana at night on Saturday, Nov. 18, 1961.

Queen Elizabeth II and Ghana President Kwame Nkrumah dancing to the popular Ghana music known as ‘High Life’ at a farewell ball given in honour of the Queen and her husband at the state house in Accra, Ghana at night on Saturday, 18 November 1961. (AP Photo)Southern Rhodesia, which had now become Rhodesia, placed Britain in an awkward position with her new partners who supported liberation as a basic rule, and were also eager to exercise their new found diplomatic heft. In London, one side of the bureaucracy even suggested that the queen appoint a senior royal, perhaps Prince Philip, as her governor-general and have him show up in Salisbury (Harare) with an army to take back the country from Smith and hand it to the African nationalists. This idea went nowhere, but others did.

The Southern Rhodesia situation gave the world its first UN-mandated economic sanctions when the United Nations Security Council, which included then Nigeria, Uganda, and Mali, passed resolutions, essentially blockading the errant colony. It also gave the new African states a feel of their diplomatic might on the world stage, as even the ones in the UNSC criticised the resolutions as not being tough enough.

It formed, for the next decade and a half, a central diplomatic issue on which Britain and her former colonies did not see eye to eye. The errant colony was placed under an arms embargo, denied official recognition, and essentially isolated globally.

In one attempt to dislodge Smith and his government, the queen did use her constitutional powers. In 1968, she commuted the death sentences of three black men in Southern Rhodesia. It was the first real attempt at exercising her prerogative of mercy, but Smith’s government ignored the pardon and executed the three men anyway. Their reason for this rebellion, supported by a judicial finding, was that the government of Rhodesia had not been consulted as the laws prescribed, and the orders had not come from the Queen of Rhodesia.

From midnight I shall cease to be your Queen…

In 1961, Queen Elizabeth, then still in her first decade, arrived in Ghana for an official visit. The decolonisation process was still ongoing in the rest of the empire, but by that point, Ghana had been free for four years and had just become a republic. Queen Elizabeth had been Queen of Ghana until July 1960, in which time it had also become clear that Kwame Nkrumah intended for the country to become the epicentre of Pan-Africanism. Nkrumah, in the words of one senior British official, viewed himself as “a Messiah sent to deliver Africa from bondage”.

Several bombs had exploded in Accra in the lead up to the royal visit, raising anxieties in London about the safety of the queen. However, she insisted on going, knowing that it was important to curry favour with Nkrumah and his new government, and, by extension, the other now free or soon to be free colonies on the continent that admired him.

At a foreign policy level, she is reported to have said that it would be shocking if Soviet Union leader Nikita Khruschev was to show up in Ghana before she did. There were legitimate concerns that Ghana was looking left, and in these early years of the diplomatic jostling that characterised the Cold War, it was up to Britain to find ways of keeping its former colonies on her side.

I have risked my queen, you must risk your money

For the British government, which viewed the crown as an instrument of its foreign policy, the visit would warm up Nkrumah. This was not just about soft power, it was also to outmanoeuvre Krushchev on financing and support for Ghana’s critical Volta Dam project. Nevertheless, Britain was still trying to claw back from the financial decline that accompanied World War II, so after the visit, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan called US President John F. Kennedy and told him: “I have risked my queen, you must risk your money.”

The British had avoided sending the queen to independence ceremonies, instead sending senior royals who also doubled up as her representatives in her first speeches to the new parliaments. It deployed her on specific charm offensives, such as this one, aimed at redefining relationships and further legitimising the concept of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Keeping them with Britain

The swift break-up of the British empire was designed to keep the new leaders, particularly influential nationalists, such as Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, within the British sphere of influence. This concern for how Britain would navigate the future (the Commonwealth was still a relatively young gathering at the time) also heavily influenced the decolonisation process itself.

In her letters to her former colonies, for example, Queen Elizabeth constantly brought up the Commonwealth. “I am sure that in the future the common memories of our long association will strengthen and increase the friendship of our countries as fellow members of the Commonwealth,” she said in a letter to Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe.

The speed with which the newly independent countries became republics, replacing the queen as their head of state, often depended on its leader’s ambitions and other realities. While the East African countries of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda took just a year each, West African countries took slightly longer to become republics, averaging about three years. She was Queen of Sierra Leone for a decade, until 1971, and Queen of Mauritius for several decades, until 1992. Even Rhodesia, for all its initial insistence that it was a loyal Commonwealth dominion, replaced her as queen in 1970.

These titles in 10 African countries were ceremonial, but Queen Elizabeth was a consummate politician, eager to help Britain navigate the death of its empire. She travelled frequently and met African leaders whose nations were critical to Britain’s foreign policies. She bestowed them with British honours, even knighting the Margai brothers of Sierra Leone in the lead up to independence, in an effort to continuously deploy the soft power that her crown gave her. While practical, it also meant that she represented Britain’s continued legitimisation of the sins of the new leaders, prioritising its internal politics instead.

‘Conqueror of the British Empire’

Relations with Uganda’s Idi Amin worsened over time, until Britain broke off relations with the East African country in 1977. Amin reacted to it by adding the title CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire), to his already long titles. That was also the year Queen Elizabeth is said to have told an aide that she might hit Amin on the head with a ceremonial sword if he dared to show up at her Silver Jubilee.

Amin knew he was not welcome, as Britain had ‘leaked’ just how unwelcome he was: One plan in May was to divert his plane, strip him of his security, charge him for unpaid gasoline bills, and even remind him that his predecessor, Milton Obote, had been at a similar meeting when he seized power six years earlier, so he didn’t show up.

[…] the late queen exemplified a collapsed empire whose scars are yet to heal.

Amin being unwelcome in London was not just Britain in conflict with her former colony. It was also Britain trying to keep the Commonwealth leaders, some such as Nyerere and Kaunda, who had been vocal about the danger of Amin from the start, happy. Its problem was that it had built the Commonwealth and invited all its former colonies, even the ones ruled by a murderous dictator who took every opportunity to troll Britain, and just about anyone else.

Although Queen Elizabeth was recognised as the head of the Commonwealth, the grouping was a gathering of equals, and one of Britain’s most important foreign policy tools.

Just a symbol

The problem with being a symbol, and a good one at that, is that the late queen exemplified a collapsed empire whose scars are yet to heal.

She was a symbol in Kenya, where trouble was brewing, and where Britain’s organised violence and forced villagisation would cause irreparable damage. These crimes were committed in her name, but in the immediate years after independence, they was not the pressing concern of a new Kenya.

Some of the many Kikuyu tribesmen who were detained as Mau Mau suspects after the forced evacuation of Kikuyus accused of squatting on European farms in the Thomson’s Falls area, Kenya, wait to be transported on 30 November 1952. (AP Photo, File)

The new nation’s leaders’ priorities had changed, so they ignored the festering issue of making their former masters pay, and repent, for their sins. They openly courted continued British assistance even with things such as funerals: After Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta suffered a stroke in 1968, Nairobi and London began secretly coordinating plans for a funeral, with Nairobi eager to learn such details as how he would be embalmed and lie in state. When he died a decade later, Britain sent not just advisors, but a gun carriage rumoured to have been the same one used at Churchill’s funeral.

In Kenya, the catharsis over the Mau Mau war, which began and ended in the first decade of Queen Elizabeth’s rule, did not properly begin until after a successor government removed the organisation from its proscription list in the early 2000s. It was followed by active cases against Britain for its crimes in the 1950s and demands not just for an official apology and reparations, but a renewed sense that the empire had gotten off too easily.

A big part of why that happened was Queen Elizabeth, who charmed her way with her former subjects, breaking barriers by treating them as equals barely months after they had been hers to command.

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