This lecture draws much of its material from my recent book, Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth (Oxford University Press, 2013). This explores the triangular relationship between the British government, the Palace and the Commonwealth in the period after 1945. It has two principal themes: the relationship of the Crown to the ‘Commonwealth Realms’ (where the Queen remains sovereign), and the development of the headship of the Commonwealth.
The background can be stated fairly simply – in the early part of the twentieth century, the British government promoted the Crown as a counterbalance to the centrifugal forces that were drawing the Empire/Commonwealth apart. Even in this respect, however, it increasingly had to accept that the relationship of the Commonwealth realms to the Crown would essentially be bilateral ones. This was implicit in the Balfour Report of 1926, and the Statute of Westminster in 1931. From here, it was a relatively short jump to accepting the notion of a divided Crown, although the British government continued to resist this right up to the 1950s.
Ultimately, with newly-independent India’s determination to become a republic in the late 1940s, the British government had to accept that allegiance to the Crown could no longer be the common factor binding the Commonwealth together. It therefore devised the notion of the headship of the Commonwealth as a means of enabling a republican India to remain in the Commonwealth while continuing to give the monarchy a pivotal symbolic role. The headship, however, eventually took on a life of its own.
The basic argument of the book is that it was not long after 1945 that an increasing number of influential figures within the British government began to regret having created this elaborate constitutional infrastructure. The system of Commonwealth realms was a recipe for confusion and misunderstanding, which policy makers increasingly saw as a liability in terms of the UK’s relations with its former colonies – so much so that by the early 1960s, British ministers were actually bullying African nationalist leaders into adopting republican constitutions on independence.
The headship of the Commonwealth also became something of a headache for UK policy makers, partly because it provided the Palace with a constitutionally dubious job-creation scheme, and partly because it tended to tie the British government to what many UK policy makers came from the 1960s onwards to regard as a troublesome and/or redundant institution.