That Queen Elizabeth II was admired by many around the world today seems self-evident. But we shouldn’t underestimate how remarkable it is that she was held in such esteem, even by the very people who fought so hard to get rid of British rule. In 2009, when I interviewed Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda, for the Royal Commonwealth Society, I was taken aback by the genuine warmth with which he talked about the Queen. This was someone, don’t forget, who had been jailed by the Queen’s Governor General for his pro-independence activism.
Her Majesty could also count Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first President and Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India to independence, among her admirers. Her ability to forge bonds across political and racial divides, and amid anger and resentment around the British Empire, helped to create and project a postcolonial and internationalist Britain. Institutions like the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of independent states based on shared values of which Her Majesty was the nominal head, helped Britain to stay relevant and connected in a changing world.
The Queen’s passing comes at a time of profound questions around Britain’s role in the world. A new Prime Minister and a new King, coming hot on the heels of Brexit, a pandemic, a war in Europe, and fundamental changes in the geopolitical landscape, have challenged the notion that Britain is willing or able to play a leadership role on the world stage.
Today, as we seek to deal with the energy crisis, rising poverty and fiscal challenges in the UK, our instinct may be to turn inwards, to prioritise our own domestic challenges and to downplay our obligations to alleviate suffering elsewhere.
The UK’s aid budget has been cut by more than £4 billion since 2020. In the face of rising poverty and hunger, Britain has reneged on a promise made more than 50 years ago to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas development assistance. Many are concerned that the aid that does remain will be tweaked to serve a narrow national interest. As Trade Secretary and Foreign Secretary, our new Prime Minister made clear she sees aid as helping to deliver trade and investment opportunities for the UK, as well as a means to influence ‘malign actors’. As rising inflation and soaring gas prices fuel a painful cost-of-living crisis, these political tensions around aid spending are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.
Yet, from this maelstrom, our new leaders, Prime Minister Truss and King Charles III, have a real opportunity to pick up the Queen’s mantle, to inspire by example and to ensure that her legacy lives on in the form of a new, confident Global Britain, driven by the audacity of a new internationalism.
And it will take audacity. When my own organisation, Oxfam, was founded 80 years ago, it grew out of an internationalist belief in global solidarity and ‘one humanity’ that was, amidst the suffering of World War II, deeply counter-cultural. Our founders were ridiculed as being naïve idealists.
Yet, at Oxfam, we see time and again that the majority of people in this country hold fast to a belief in a Global Britain that can – and should – play a positive, constructive role as a force for good in the world. Indifference to inequality and injustice simply isn’t part of the national psyche. Indeed, Britain has a remarkable record of pioneering the kind of compassionate, generous internationalism that has put us at the vanguard of efforts to tackle any number of global development challenges.
And these truly are challenges that affect us all. Across East Africa, a perfect storm of climate-change driven drought, political inaction and the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on food and energy prices, is pushing millions towards starvation. These are the same issues that are affecting us. They’re being felt more acutely in East Africa and other fragile contexts around the world, but they are the same. In an interconnected, truly interdependent world, there can be no ‘them’ and ‘us’. If the coronavirus pandemic taught us anything, it is that no one is safe until everyone is safe.
‘Dangerous unselfishness’ as Martin Luther King called it might seem dangerous indeed to politicians bound by the short-termism of opinion polls and election cycles. But longer-term, a shift towards selfishness, in terms of resource allocation and ideology, represents a far more insidious threat. We simply cannot hope to meet the existential challenges facing people and planet unless we commit to radical new forms of solidarity.
Much has been said in recent days about British identity, British institutions, and Britain’s role in the world. For me, all three are grounded in connections with the rest of the world. This internationalism has had its destructive side – from the slave trade, to the atrocities of colonial conquest, to the treatment of migrants – and there is a real risk that this era too will be characterised by a Britain pursuing a narrow and self-interested agenda. But it need not be so. This moment of transition will re-set the country’s trajectory on the world stage for decades to come. In 1952, it was far from certain whether Britain would emerge a strong, confident postcolonial player on the world stage. It did, in part thanks to the role of the late Queen. In 2022, with her gone, we need to make sure that Britain remains a compassionate, internationalist nation.
Danny Sriskandarajah is Chief Executive of Oxfam GB. He was previously Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society.