Outside In

Queen has seen world become more stable over past 90 years

Britain’s constructive membership of the European Union must surely be central to her legacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 9:07am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 9:07am

As Britain’s Queen Elizabeth sipped a hard-earned glass of champagne over lunch yesterday with US President Barack Obama, a day after celebrating her 90th birthday, after 64 years on Britain’s throne, it is timely to think of the awesome longevity that has made her one of the world’s most respected diplomats. What a neophyte Obama must feel.

She was the first British monarch to address the US Congress, and Obama had not even graduated from Harvard Law School

For someone like myself, who is starting to notice the greying around the temples, the first and most satisfying aspect of her birthday weekend is that you can be 90 and still be useful. In this, she is not alone. Former US president Jimmy Carter still earns his keep as a global peacemaker aged 92, and Henry Kissinger still earns tidy sums for speeches aged 93. Alan Greenspan – who history will doubtless thank for the “great moderation” that lulled us sleepwalking into the 2008 “great recession” and all the pain that has followed – was a one-month-old babe in nappies in New York when Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born on a thoroughly uncharismatic dull, wet and mild springtime day in London.

The second thought about her Obama lunch at Windsor Castle is just how long her relationship is with the United States. It is 59 years since her first 1957 state visit to the US (where she also addressed the UN General Assembly). And it is 25 years since “the talking hat” addressed a joint session of the US Congress – at 162.5cmshe could barely see over the lectern. She was the first British monarch to address the US Congress, and Obama had not even graduated from Harvard Law School.

Like Kissinger or Carter, the queen is also a living reminder of how in general terms the world has changed for the better – and of how so many of today’s terrible problems have all been tackled and overcome – before. The damage wrought by the first world war as still strongly felt in Britain and across Europe. Times were hard and turbulent. As she was being born on that dull London day in 1926, trade union militants launched a 10-day general strike across Britain that led to the imposition of martial law. She was just three when the Great Depression engulfed the American and European economies. I wonder what parallels she might draw as we enter the 8th year of our “great recession”.

Queen Elizabeth II at 90 -- What a day it was

Most strikingly, she must quietly celebrate the gradual stabilisation that has been forged across the world since the awful global chaos through the early decades of the 20th century. And here, I am not simply thinking about Adolf Hitler and the conflict in Europe that provided a backdrop to the first two decades of her life. I am thinking also about the stabilisation that has occurred closer to home here in Hong Kong.

Sun Yat-sen had just died, and the ascendant Chiang Kai-shek had just been announced the supreme warlord of Canton. He was on the point of creating the National Revolutionary Army. China collapsed into civil war when she was just a year old – though I am sure she was not aware of that at the time, however good her education. Japan formally invaded China in 1931, plunging the country into almost two decades of bloodshed that has rarely been matched anywhere in the world.

‘Queengate’ photographer snaps 90th birthday shots, showing monarch surrounded by family (and corgis)

From those desperately chaotic and violent years of her early childhood, I wonder whether the later queen could have dreamed in any of her most optimistic dreams of the peace and prosperity that has been spread across so many countries around the world over the 64 years she has toiled as Britain’s billionaire monarch. But as the “global recession” regenerates xenophobia and racism like we have not seen in generations, at the same time as Islamic fundamentalists have unleashed dreadful, unpredictable violence far beyond the troubled Islamic world, the queen’s comments to the US Congress back a quarter of a century ago must have resonated yesterday over her lunch with the battle-tested Obama: “Some people believe that power grows from the barrel of a gun, and so it can,” she said. “ But history shows that it never grows well nor for very long. Force, in the end, is sterile. We have gone a better way: our societies rest on mutual agreement, on contract and on consensus.”

That thought echoes so well the thoughts of Wang Zhenmin, one of China’s leading legal brains and now legal chief in the central government’s Liaison office in Hong Kong, who spoke just two weeks ago at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club about China’s post-1949 history, graduating from 30 years of “rule by politics” to 30 years of “rule by economics”, to a new period, just beginning, marked by “rule of law”. One can only hope that the region’s military top brass also acknowledge that “better way” as they play brinkman games in the South China Sea.

The one thing we can be certain Obama discussed with the queen will have been the current lunatic national debate over Britain possibly exiting the European Union. It is hardly likely that Obama’s public comments, which point to the benefits Britain derives from membership of the larger European community, and the value the US sees in Britain’s membership, will have much impact on the eccentric and irrational debate now being engaged across Britain.

Of course, the queen is far too seasoned a diplomat to wade publicly into this regrettable and destabilising debate, but one does not need much imagination to predict her views. As Britain’s longest-serving diplomat, with a 64-year period of dedicated effort to making sure power does not in future grow from the barrel of a gun, Britain’s constructive membership of the EU must surely be as central to her legacy as the development of a post-colonial Commonwealth. The thought will not cross her mind, but it makes as much sense as Hong Kong seeking independence from China. Mercifully, that is a topic for another day.

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group