The monarchy’s real race problem

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

The monarchy has a race problem. And it has much more to do with Theresa May and Boris Johnson than the hazy accusations of the Sussexes. Two royal tours on the trot have now been upstaged by accusations of ‘colonialism’. First, the Cambridges took the Queen’s Jubilee message to three of her Caribbean realms. Then the Wessexes visited three more. On both tours, local politicians took the opportunity to lecture their royal guests on historic evils done in the name of the Crown. This was swiftly followed back home by a virtuous pile-on on Twitter and elsewhere. LBC’s James O’Brien berated the ‘absurd’ Wessexes for giving their hosts framed photographs. Some urged ‘independence’ for nations like St Lucia. This will have surprised those who attended its independence celebrations in 1979. Therein lies the problem. All the Queen’s realms in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) are as autonomous as the UK. It was they who asked her to be head of state. They could have switched to a presidential model (like Trinidad) at any time but chose not to. It was – and still is – their call. Therefore, to invite the head of state or her family to stay and then use the occasion to dish out ancestral reprimands and invite them to step down is, to put it politely, grandstanding. Yet there is no one making these points. Royal visitors must fix a mirthless grin.

Talk to any student of Caribbean politics and they will point to one perfectly obvious reason for this recent froideur: the Windrush scandal. The shocking blunders of Theresa May’s government in its treatment of post-war workers from the West Indies – and their dependants – has caused very great hurt across the region. ‘We thought we were welcome and now it turns out we were not,’ is the prevailing sentiment. Tied to the BLM movement in the USA, it has all added strong fuel to the debate over the legacy of slavery. The issue overshadowed the last Commonwealth summit in London in 2018. Windrush has nothing to do with the monarchy – the Queen is, separately, Queen of Jamaica, Antigua etc – but the royals are taking the collateral hit from this entirely political blunder. Who should step forward in their defence? The government. Yet not a squeak. Once again, the apolitical royals must soak it up.

One of Boris Johnson’s best-kept secrets is that he is the current ‘Chair in Office’ of the Commonwealth (the equivalent of the EU’s rotating presidency). As such, he speaks for the leaders of all 54 member states. He holds the post because Britain held that last Commonwealth summit in 2018. Thanks to Covid, all subsequent summits have been cancelled with the result that he has held the position for longer than anyone – ever. Yet he has barely mentioned the Commonwealth once. He got through last year’s entire G7 summit without even uttering the C word. Why the reticence? It is, in part, because his officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have all but forgotten what the ‘C’ stands for. ‘The new breed of officials think the Commonwealth is either unimportant or embarrassing,’ a former Tory minister sighs. Does the PM think so too? During the Brexit debate, much was made of the potential of the Commonwealth as a global network which shares our language, legal code and way of doing things. Yet the PM has gone silent. No wonder some member states are turning on Britain (and, in turn, the Head of the Commonwealth). Johnson cannot wait for the next Commonwealth conference. Then he can deport this irksome task to the host of the next summit – Rwanda.

Plans for next month’s Jubilee pageant resurrect grim memories for the architect of the last one. ‘It was the most ghastly two years of my life,’ the Marquess of Salisbury told me when interviewed for my new biography of the Queen. What troubled him most was the reluctance of corporate Britain to help sponsor his great flotilla down the Thames for HM’s 60th. It was only saved by foreign backers. The man running the 70th bash, Nicholas Coleridge, says he has had no such problems. He also has one notable advantage. It is on dry land.

My most memorable interviewee for this (or any other) book was the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. We had just started discussing the Queen over Zoom when he upped and left. What had I said to upset (staunchly royalist) Mr Abbott? Moments later, an assistant jumped in: ‘Sorry, Robert – Tony’s putting out a fire.’ The ex-PM, it transpired, doubles up as a part-time fireman. We regrouped the next day.

Both Abbott and his predecessor, Julia Gillard, highlighted an unexpected source of royal support Down Under: asylum seekers. ‘If you come from a nation of coups and civil war, you see change through a different prism. It is scary,’ said Gillard (a republican). ‘For many of them, the word “republic” is not a good word.’ Both PMs agreed that this played a part in the surprise 1999 referendum vote to keep the Crown in Oz.

It was only five years ago this week that we witnessed an event which shows how far Ukraine had progressed – and how far it has been dragged back to the dark ages. The 2017 Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv was joyously incongruous and surely the campest event ever staged on former Soviet soil. I had gone to report on the UK’s first Eurovision post-Brexit. It wasn’t quite nul points (we came 15th). But we should have been focusing on another story. Ukraine had banned the Russian entry, Julia Samoilova, for travelling (illegally) to the annexed region of Crimea. Russia responded by erasing Eurovision from the airwaves altogether.

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