By Keith Best
World federalists from across our planet share a common ideal of improved global democratic governance but often seldom else. We are an eclectic set of individuals whose political views may differ as chalk and cheese – from the authoritarian leaning in favour of a disciplined society to a laisser-faire libertarian putting individual freedoms above everything. We range from the Right to the Left. Some are monarchists while others are committed republicans. Most will be concerned about climate change and our environment but on what constitutes a stable society views may differ widely. Those in the South understandably will be activated by issues of poverty, development, access to food and clean water, medicine and infant mortality whereas in the more prosperous North concentration has been more on nuclear proliferation and the arms race. There are wide differences in approach to religions and culture and to the interpretation of history: colonialism and slavery throughout the ages have shaped the thoughts of those affected. Of course, these are broad generalisations and seldom does one find an homogenous society or country in which there is a monopoly of views on these divisions – most are more complex and nuanced and contain within them elements of all these strands of thought and others. Yet, for us, it is worth reflecting the strength of our movement in that it can bring together persons from such different traditions and perspectives. It may mean that we view some of our companions as strange bedfellows but the overarching sense of a common purpose remains a massive strength.
We may have different beliefs in political constitutions and, of course, most of these we have inherited as imperfect evolutions created over time often in a haphazard and unplanned way as a result of conquest and defeat and popular movements. One only has to study the way in which the French Revolution developed to see how events and personalities changed its course. Many who wanted a change from absolute autocracy of the monarch did not wish to abolish the monarchy – rather like many British Parliamentarians who wanted to curtail rather than abolish the powers of the King before the situation erupted into the English Civil War and his execution. After only just a few years of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell and, briefly, his son Richard there was an overwhelming sentiment that a republic was not suited to the British idea of government and the new King was invited to return to the throne. This was then followed by what we call the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which William of Orange and Queen Mary became, in effect, constitutional monarchs with their powers subsidiary to those of Parliament and set the evolution of our current system in which our new King Charles III recently has had to give a solemn public oath to uphold the constitution. The British are not the only state to have rulers from overseas – but it is perhaps strange that there is such little remark about the fact that we have now had foreign rulers or their successors for almost a thousand years!
For most of the history of humanity territorial aggrandisement and colonialism have been its hallmark. From the ancient empires to Pax Romana (“They have pillaged the world: when the land has nothing left for men who ravage everything, they scour the sea. If an enemy is rich, they are greedy, if he is poor, they crave glory. Neither East nor West can sate their appetite. They are the only people on earth to covet wealth and poverty with equal craving. They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ’empire’. They make a desert and call it ‘peace'” – words attributed by Tacitus to Caledonian Chieftain Calgacus fighting the Romans on the eve of the battle of Mons Graupius) and to the destructive, proselytising conquistadores and the empires of Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and the UK – nations have rapaciously exploited and plundered the natural resources of countries and, appallingly their human ones through slavery.
It is only in recent history that we have learned to respect the territorial integrity of states and to seek to enshrine this in international law. It is this which makes the Russian invasion of Ukraine so appalling to modern minds. The recent histories of colonialism, however, are too proximate not to have current resonance as many can look back on only a few generations to find their forbears were, indeed, slaves. Modern slavery continues even if sometimes it is disguised in bonded labour or low wages. Much of this exploitation and brutality was done in the name of the monarch of the colonial power so I understand the antipathy among some towards monarchy and the enthusiasm for republicanism – although often those who rise to be elected to be President are no better than those who succeed hereditarily.
With all our differing views on such matters, however, we can all agree that we need leaders and that they should operate constrained by democratic consent. We can argue about the principal qualities in leadership but we all should be wary of the populist demagogue who may charm the crowd with promises of a better life or largesse but who turns out to be a false prophet. In the UK we are seeing a continuing outpouring of grief at the death of Queen Elizabeth II after a remarkable reign of seventy years (the longest in British history) in which the world has changed unrecognisably. In one of her early addresses to the nation in her first televised Christmas broadcast in 1957 Queen Elizabeth recognised the limitation on her powers and turned it to her advantage by stating “I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.” It was this ability to stand above politics, almost as a national friend, yet showing her compassion for those who were in need that so endeared her to the nation and to the peoples of those 53 countries in the Commonwealth (of which, by common consent, she was Head) whatever their views about the monarchy or their colonial history. Despite its origins in empire and with still many unresolved issues about what happened during that period of domination the Commonwealth is a free association of nations representing some 2.5billion people – about a third of the world’s population including its most numerous democracy, India, which has held a day of mourning for the late Queen. Her love of the diversity of ethnicity, culture and religion of the Commonwealth was understood and reciprocated. From her earliest visits in which she represented the colonial power as the exploiter she has transformed that relationship into one of mutual respect and affection – a metamorphosis effected significantly through her own endeavour and genuine affection. People mourn the Queen not so much because she was Queen with all that represents but because of her empathy, interest in people, decency and devotion to duty.
Someone above the daily cut and thrust of politics can often achieve what politicians cannot. The late Queen Elizabeth was a true ambassador for peace and reconciliation. Not only did she try to soothe the scars of the colonial history of many of the Commonwealth countries but, in her 2011 State Visit to the Republic of Ireland which had seen so much enmity, bloodshed and ill-will between the British and the Irish she bound further wounds. It was the first visit by a reigning British monarch to the area that is now the Republic of Ireland since the 1911 tour by Elizabeth’s grandfather King George V, when the entire island of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. During the visit, the Queen visited sites of significance for Irish nationalism in Dublin, such as the Garden of Remembrance and Croke Park, scene of the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre (in which more than 30 people were killed). She also delivered a widely praised speech on the history of relations between the two countries which she opened with some words of Irish, once banned under British rule, referring to the President of Ireland as “friend”. Queen Elizabeth II “managed to charm an entire country” during her historic state visit to the Republic of Ireland, the Irish foreign minister said.
A year later, during her Diamond Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland, during a cultural event at a Belfast theatre one morning in June 2012, the monarch came face to face for the first time with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. The IRA had waged a terrorist campaign against the British establishment for years and the royal family was rocked when republicans murdered the Queen’s second cousin, Lord Mountbatten, in 1979. When they met she was able, quite literally, to stretch out the hand of reconciliation with a now famous handshake.
It would be difficult for any elected individual to command such widespread respect and affection. When British troops go to war they do so for “Queen and Country” and not the Government of the Day which involved them in it. The hereditary nature of the British monarchy, anomalous as it may seem to many in the modern world, is seen by many others as a source of strength and continuity which, despite democratic desires, leads one to question how well it can beachieved through an electoral system.
I was fortunate to first meet the Queen as a boy aged 13 when she visited our school in the tenth year of her reign. Her genuine interest in other people, her phenomenal memory for people, places and facts and her natural warmth as well as her sense of humour meant that everyone she met was made to feel special – it is an attractive trait that many could do well to try to emulate. One of the many stories of her sense of humour was when she was out walking in the Scottish hills around Balmoral with only one security officer a family of tourists also walking, not knowing who she was, observed that the Queen lived nearby and asked her if she had ever met her. “No” the Queen replied “but he has” pointing to the security officer, whereupon the tourists asked the Queen to photograph them standing with the security guard, which she readily did!
My purpose in these reflections about the late Queen is not just to join the enormous number of tributes but to mention a role that is often overlooked but at which she was well suited both in position and temperament – that of peacemaker.
On another issue we should reflect that theTenth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1-26 August this year ended as a disappointment. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the NPT’s opening for signature, 24 May 2018, Geneva “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an essential pillar of international peace and security, and the heart of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. Its unique status is based on its near universal membership, legally-binding obligations on disarmament, verifiable non-proliferation safeguards regime, and commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.” Yet we are now a long way not just in history but in attitudes from the McCloy-Zorin accord of 1961 which set out a pathway for complete disarmament.Indeed, it established a foundation or “roadmap” for all future negotiations and international treaties with regard to nuclear and general and complete disarmament under effective international control and effectively aimed at abolishing war as an institution: it was passed unanimously by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 1961.Nevertheless, 191 states parties have joined the NPT, including the five nuclear-weapon states, making it the most widely adhered to multilateral disarmament agreement.
We must all strive further.
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