It’s obvious that Queen Elizabeth II was beloved by many people all over the world. 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 connections across political and racial lines, and amid anger, resentment, around the British Empire, helped to create an internationalist, postcolonial Britain. Institutions such as the Commonwealth, an association of independent states founded on shared values, of which Her Majesty was nominal head, helped Britain stay relevant and connected in a changing global environment.
The Queen’s passing comes at a time of profound questions around Britain’s role in the world. A new Prime Minister, a new King, all of which are hot on the heels Brexit, a pandemic in Europe, and fundamental changes to the geopolitical landscape have challenged the notion Britain is able or willing to play a leading role on the international stage.
As we deal with the UK’s energy crisis, rising poverty, and fiscal challenges, our instinct may be for us to look inwards, to prioritise domestic problems and downplay our responsibility to alleviate suffering elsewhere.
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The UK’s aid budget has been cut by more than £4 billion since 2020. The UK has abandoned a promise made over 50 years ago to use 0.7% of its GNI for overseas development assistance. This is in the face of increasing poverty and hunger. Many are concerned about the possibility that the aid that is left will be altered 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’. These political tensions surrounding aid spending will not disappear anytime soon, as rising inflation and skyrocketing gas prices fuel a painful cost of living crisis.
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.
It will require courage. 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. Britain has a remarkable track record of being a pioneer in compassionate, generous internationalism, which has helped us to be at the forefront of efforts to address any number of global development issues.
These are real problems that affect all of us. Millions of people are starving in East Africa due to a combination of climate change-driven drought, political inaction, and the impact of conflict in Ukraine on food prices and energy prices. These are the same issues that affect 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’. The coronavirus pandemic taught us something: no one is safe until everybody 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. A shift towards selfishness in ideology and resource allocation is a far more serious threat in the long-term. Without radical new forms and approaches to solidarity, we cannot meet the existential problems facing humanity and the planet.
Much has been said in recent days about British identity, British institutions, and Britain’s role in the world. All three are rooted in connections to the rest of the globe, according to me. 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 doesn’t have the to be. This moment of transition will re-set the country’s trajectory on the world stage for decades to come. It was not certain that Britain would emerge as a strong, confident, postcolonial actor on the international stage in 1952. It did, partly due to the Queen’s role. With her departure, we must ensure that Britain remains an internationalist, compassionate nation in 2022.
Danny Sriskandarajah, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, is Danny Sriskandarajah. He was Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society.