The press gave a lot of coverage last week to Meghan Markle’s first public appearance with the Queen. She was also seen singing “God save the Queen” for the first time ever. Her attire was, of course, described in great detail and contrasted with what her future sister-in-law was wearing.
I didn’t see anything on the actual event the royals were attending.
It was a church service for Commonwealth Day, a day few will be aware of. One American news commentator, clearly bewildered, said it was “Queen Commonwealth Day.” Well, yes, the Queen is Head of the Commonwealth, a loose association of 53 countries, almost all of them former British colonies. Outside of the Commonwealth, many people think the queen does nothing – in contrast, it can truthfully be said that without her the Commonwealth would not exist. She has worked tirelessly during her reign to keep the organization alive at a time when successive British governments have ignored it.
Suddenly, once again, the Commonwealth is becoming important.
Thanks to Brexit.
The United Kingdom (also held together by the Queen) is set to exit the European Union a year from now, though there will be a transition period of 21 months following that exit. By the end of 2020, the EU will exist, after almost fifty years, without the UK.
Before Britain entered the EU (then the European Community), most of the country’s trade was with EFTA and the Commonwealth. EFTA is the European Free Trade Area. Fifty years ago, it had many members, but most left to join the EU, a much more centralized and controlling bloc of countries.
Within the Commonwealth, Britain did a lot of trade with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, through a system known as Imperial Preferences, a preferential trading agreement between the nations, which were then called the Dominions, fully independent countries within the Commonwealth who shared a joint allegiance to the Crown. (South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961, but continued to enjoy the preferential trade.) In addition, there was a great deal of trade with former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, all now fully independent countries. These countries entered a preferential trading agreement with the EU in 1975 – they are unlikely to want to exchange those ties for closer ties with their former colonial power.
When Britain entered the European Common Market she turned her back on her former trading partners. To put it bluntly, she betrayed the countries she once ruled.
Now, she hopes to get that trade back.
Australia and Canada have both offered a new trade deal, but the UK is dragging its feet, seemingly hoping to salvage something from its trade ties with Europe. Britain’s reluctance to put Europe behind her could mean she will miss out on good trade deals, at a time when the world seems headed toward a trade war.
Australia’s High Commissioner (Ambassador) in London on Monday encouraged the British people and their government to be more optimistic about their post-Brexit future. Alexander Downer was interviewed on London’s LBC radio station.
“Look you may have voted for Brexit, or you may have voted for Remain, but if Australia ends up in a difficult situation like that, and we did when the UK joined the European Union, we have an expression in Australia which is ‘she’ll be right’.
“So we’ll work it out somehow and she will be right, in our case we’ve always done pretty well as a country because we run our country well.
“You’ve always done pretty well as a country, you’ll work your way through it and there’s no need to be too pessimistic.”
The Australian High Commissioner also called on the Government to do more to promote post-Brexit optimism in Britain.” (“There’s no need to be pessimistic,” Darren Hunt, Daily Express, 3/21).
Mr. Downer pointed out that when Commonwealth trade ties abruptly ended with Britain entering the European Community, Australia suddenly faced enormous challenges, but met them all and has continued to thrive.
There are some in the UK who are optimistic about the future. In some cases, people are hankering after the glory days when Britain had the world’s greatest empire and the Royal Navy dominated the globe.
This is not going to happen again. Let me explain why.
EMPIRE DRIVEN BY RELIGION
It’s been 400 years since the British Empire started to form. It started under the first Queen Elizabeth back in the sixteenth century – and it had a lot to do with religion. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had broken away from Rome and a power struggle followed between Catholics and Protestants. His daughter, who many consider to be the country’s greatest monarch, secured the Protestant Reformation against the major European Catholic powers, Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Pope had proclaimed Elizabeth a “heretic,” which meant that any Catholic who killed her would receive a reward in heaven.
By not marrying, the throne passed on her death to her closest relative, King James VI of Scotland. He relocated to London and became James I. England no longer faced a threat from the north as it had done for centuries when Scotland was an independent country.
Having secured the nation’s freedom, the country had to look beyond the seas for trade. Trading posts were gradually established around the world, leading in time to the founding of colonies. More wars were fought to maintain the country’s religious and political freedom. In 1864, the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada asked for independence. This they received as a Dominion of the British Empire in 1867. Other countries followed and became the Commonwealth. These nations, sometimes referred to as “Britannia’s daughters,” were the free world’s first line of defense through two world wars and many other conflicts.
After World War II, Britain started to dismantle her empire, partly to focus on problems at home. Resources were redirected into the National Health Service and the nationalization of the coal-mines, steel and railways, leaving little money for defense. After four centuries, the Royal Navy was no longer a priority. Instead of protecting the kingdom from European powers that frequently turned despotic, Europe was pursued as the solution to all the nation’s problems.
Now, Europe is seen more as the problem, as many warned it would be fifty years ago.
But, a divorce after 50 years of marriage, does not mean you can go back to your youth as if nothing has happened.
The driving force behind the formation of Empire, at least initially, was a strong belief in God, the God of the Bible. Under the Catholic Church, the Bible had not been accessible to the British people; even the priests did not have copies. After King Henry VIII lifted the ban on the Bible following the break from Rome, there was an enormous enthusiasm for the scriptures. In his last speech to parliament, the King even corrected the people for being too enthusiastic, as many had taken to studying the scriptures in the country’s pubs.
This enthusiasm led zealous Christians to want to spread the gospel to the rest of the world. Jamestown and the Plymouth Colony, both founded under James I. were driven by strong religious beliefs.
Many Englishmen saw themselves as fulfilling biblical promises. To some, the British Empire was the Kingdom of God; to others, the multitude of nations promised to Joseph’s son, Ephraim, in Genesis 48:19. Certainly, after Elizabeth’s heir, James, took the throne and authorized an official translation of the Bible (the 1611 King James Version), there was a profound zeal in those who took the Bible into other lands. This continued right up to the end of the nineteenth century when Victorians saw themselves as bringing light into darkness, stamping out slavery in Africa and introducing primitive societies to the rule of law and basic Protestant Christianity.
All of this is now forgotten. Any television documentaries on the Empire made now will focus on negatives in an attempt to ridicule and dismiss it.
Having written all the above, it would still be a good idea for Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand to build stronger ties; but they will never be what they were – not without God and the Bible. Constitutional monarchy has worked well for these nations, giving them maximum freedom with the rule of law. They worked together in the past in preserving freedom, most notably in the two world wars. They need to work together again. Or, given time, they will cease to exist as they are, as demographic trends threaten them all.