Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government and the Postwar Commonwealth by Philip Murphy (Review)

The second Monday in March is Commonwealth Day and Queen Elizabeth II will mark the occasion by attending a multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey with the Duke of Edinburgh,¬†High Commissioners, Commonwealth dignitaries and young people from around the world. Women’s education advocate¬†Malala Yousafzai will deliver the keynote address.¬†The 2000 person congregation will be the largest Commonwealth Day observance but similar events will take place around the world including a Canadian¬†Commonwealth Day Observance Service in Toronto, in the presence of The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

In the twenty-first century, the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth as a family of nations are synonymous in the popular imagination. Recent coverage of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) has emphasized the importance of these events for the Queen and the future of the monarchy. In 2011, coverage of the Perth CHOGM focused on the support for succession reform in the sixteen Commonwealth Realms where the Queen is Head of State. In 2013, the presence of the Prince of Wales in Sri Lanka, representing the Queen, sparked discussion of the changing face of the monarchy as the Queen’s children and grandchildren assume more of the royal duties and overseas engagements once undertaken by the monarch.

In Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth, Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of British and Commonwealth Studies at the University of London explains that the current “Royal Commonwealth” was a controversial idea for much of the organization’s history. As much of the former British Empire transformed into a Commonwealth of independent nations after the Second World War, it seemed inevitable that the connection with the monarchy would gradually weaken. Newly independent African nations were encouraged to become republics rather than constitutional monarchies. The Queen took her role as Head of the Commonwealth seriously and became the most traveled monarch in history but the desirability of a “ceremonial head” for the Commonwealth was a matter of debate.

For Canadian readers, there is plenty of fascinating material about the decline and rebirth of the Canadian monarchy during the reign of Elizabeth II. In recent years, Australia had a referendum about the future of the monarchy while Canada was chosen as a friendly destination for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first overseas tour as a married couple in 2011. During the 1960s, Canada was the nation that appeared more likely to become a republic as the Quiet Revolution fostered negative attitudes toward the Crown in Quebec and prominent Canadians mused about the gradual decline of the monarchy in Canada. The Duke of Edinburgh’s remark at a 1969 Ottawa press conference, “We don’t come here for our health…we can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves” has been dismissed as a gaffe but Prince Philip was actually making a larger point about how monarchy exists in the interests of the people rather than the monarch.

Murphy also provides a fresh perspective on the Queen through his analysis of the Commonwealth. A number of recent biographies focus on her role as Queen of the United Kingdom and therefore emphasize her ceremonial role. By looking at the Queen through the context of the Commonwealth, Murphy reveals her multifaceted political influence around the world over the course of her reign. The Queen supported sanctions to aid the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and encouraged continued democracy in Ghana. Murphy also illuminates the influence of gender on public perceptions of the monarchy. Just as the public saw Queen Victoria as the “mother” of the British Empire, Elizabeth II has been viewed as a maternal figure for the Commonwealth.

Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth is an erudite and engaging study of the relationship between the monarchy and the Commonwealth since the Second World War. For the past sixty-two years, the Queen has been the one constant figure in the organization, her role endlessly scrutinized by successive governments around the world. It remains to be seen if the current model of a “royal commonwealth” will remain successful during future reigns.

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