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Queen Elizabeth II outside of Westminster Abbey, London, UK

The Queen's Commonwealth

Image Credit: Lorna Roberts / | Above: Queen Elizabeth II attends a Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey, on the 9th March 2020

The Queen was the Head of the Commonwealth for 70 years. When she inherited the role from her father, King George VI, the organisation consisted of just seven nations - the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). By the end of her reign, the Commonwealth had grown to a body of 56 nations, all but four of which had been former colonies of the British Empire.

In her role as Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen shared the leadership with the Commonwealth Secretary-General and the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office. Her duties included: attending the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), attending the Commonwealth Games, and recording a yearly Commonwealth Day address to the organisation’s 2.5 billion citizens. The Queen attended all but two CHOGM meetings between the inaugural meeting in 1973 until handing over the role to Prince Charles in 2015.

The Commonwealth was created in 1926 - the year of the Queen’s birth. At the Imperial Conference held that year in London, the heads of the Dominions (the self-governing states of the Empire, including Australia, India, and Ireland) produced the Balfour Declaration. The declaration established the principle that all the Dominions held equal status and were not subordinate to the United Kingdom. The term ‘Commonwealth’ was coined to describe this new organisation.

After the Second World War, the British Empire began to break apart, with India declaring independence in 1947. What started as a trickle of independence declarations in the 1950s turned into a flood in the 1960s, marking the end of the Empire and the rapid expansion of the Commonwealth, as Britain’s former colonies applied to join after gaining independence. There are currently only two former members of the Commonwealth - the Republic of Ireland, which left the organisation in 1949, and Zimbabwe, which was suspended in 2002 and left in 2003.

The Commonwealth acts almost as a mini–United Nations, with heads of each of its 56 members meeting every two years to discuss how the countries can strengthen their commitments to free trade, human rights, religious freedom, education, the arts, sport, world peace, international development, and democracy. While there is no formal free trade agreement between the member states, trade between members is often up to 50% higher than with countries outside of the organisation.

As its head for 70 years, the Queen was extremely committed to the Commonwealth and the values it promoted on the world stage. Starting in 1953, just six months after her coronation, the Queen visited all but four Commonwealth countries. Her first official tour took her to Bermuda, Jamaica, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, and Australia. Crowds flocked to see her and her husband. A particular highlight of the tour was her visit to Australia in 1954, where an estimated 75% of the population turned out to see the royal couple.

The Queen and Prince Philip visited India in 1961. It was the first visit by a British monarch since Indian independence in 1947 and marked a turning point in relations between Britain and its former colony.

To mark her Silver Jubilee in 1977, the Queen embarked on a tour of fourteen Commonwealth countries including Western Samoa, Tonga, Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas, Barbados, and Canada. She travelled 56,000 miles during her tour, but never complained about her gruelling schedule. Indeed, she stressed that she wanted as many people as possible to share in her Jubilee celebrations by having the opportunity to see her in person.

In 1995, the Queen arrived for her first visit to South Africa since 1947 where she had famously pledged to devote her whole life to the service of her country and to the Commonwealth. South Africa had been shunned on the world stage since the introduction of the apartheid regime in 1948, and the Queen’s visit was seen as an important step in the country’s rehabilitation and an endorsement of its new government under Nelson Mandela.

In 2015, the Queen made what turned out to be her final overseas trip when she attended a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on the island of Malta. It was an especially poignant end to nearly 70 years of international travel. The Queen and Prince Philip had spent two years on the island between 1949 and 1951 when Philip was stationed there as a young naval officer. The Queen looked back on her brief stay there as a young wife and mother on the island as one of the happiest times of her life.

The Queen was fiercely committed to the idea and the principles of the Commonwealth. Her commitment and dedication to the organisation is cited as one of the main reasons why it has stayed together through times of great turbulence, growing larger and stronger over the course of her seven decades as its head.

In 1953, the young queen said of the Commonwealth that it “bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”

It was a promise she kept.