The million-mile monarch: How Elizabeth II became ‘the’ Queen to the world even as Britain’s power waned

·7-min read
The Queen was the most travelled and best known monarch in the world  (Bettmann Archive/Getty)
The Queen was the most travelled and best known monarch in the world (Bettmann Archive/Getty)

She was known as the “million-mile monarch”. As part of her 70 years of service, Queen Elizabeth II visited nearly 120 countries. The combined travel distance is equivalent to two trips to the moon and back.

That would win her the title of the most well-travelled monarch in history. And perhaps it is why she has repeatedly been voted one of the most famous women on the planet.

Despite Royal controversies, resistance to and criticism of the British monarchy, the rise of powerful anti-colonialist movements and the demise of the empire, the Queen managed to maintain her position as the most recognisable and arguably popular ruler in modern history. Whether monarchist or republican, no one can deny that she has had an immense impact internationally.

That was only highlighted by the massive global response and outpouring of grief over the news of her passing on Thursday. French President Emmanuel Macron summed it up succinctly saying: “to you, she was your Queen. To us she was The Queen”. Brazil’s government even declared three days of official mourning in her honour.

And so, this may be the biggest contradiction of Elizabeth II’s reign. She carved out a unique role as a modern international monarch and retained steady admiration abroad, despite the fact that her rule was simultaneously marked by diminishing  British influence on the world, by the global backlash against colonialism, by the collapse and exposure of the so-called British empire.

The numbers say it all. When she came to the throne following the death of her father in 1952, the UK possessed more than 70 overseas territories.

At her death, the Queen was sovereign of just 14 Commonwealth realms in addition to the UK - most of them sparse islands with a combined population amounting to no more than 300,000 people.

Even back home, her rule saw the UK devolve power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But yet, to quote President Macron again, she remained the Queen. For seventy years, she savvily navigated a tricky and tumultuous path for the monarchy. She carefully rebranded and carried her family and in doing so maintained a place on the world stage even as the UK increasingly became a backwater.

In short as Dickie Arbiter - her former press secretary - tells The Independent no matter where she was, she could always draw a crowd.

“She got a good reception wherever she went. People turned up, perhaps not Republicans but the majority did. They wanted to see the Queen,” he recalls.

That was the case even after the 1999 Australian republic referendum where the country had only narrowly voted in favour of retaining the monarchy. The streets were lined with people.

“She was unique globally. She was a catalyst in bringing people together. I think it is because of who she was, what she represented,” he continues.

“The fact she has been around for such a long time. She was a constant presence for most people’s lives. There is a healthy respect.”

She was unique globally. She was a catalyst in bringing people together

Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press secretary

This was echoed in comments by former world leaders as they reflected on her life and legacy on Thursday.

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister, told the BBC World Service Thursday night that he and his mother saw her as a “person of formidable unifying strength.”

John Major, meanwhile, said that she was extraordinarily and unusually well briefed on foreign affairs which had a huge impact.

All agreed that because of this she crucially saw the changing times. As Mr Arbiter puts it, during that important trip to Australia she was careful to say in her arrival speech that the issue of a republic was something that the Australian people and “they alone should decide upon”.

Queen Elizabeth II came to power in a different world.

It was a time when daughters of nobility and gentry were still presented at court, when Joseph Stalin was still in power, when the so-called British empire still existed.

On her 21st birthday while in South Africa, five years before she would become monarch, she famously declared that she would devote “her life to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”.

By the time she became Queen - while holidaying in Kenya (a country which would go on to declare independence 11 years afterwards), she had recognised times had changed.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walk through the crowd during her Commonwealth visit to New Zealand, January 1954. She was met by around 20,000 Maoris from all over the country (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walk through the crowd during her Commonwealth visit to New Zealand, January 1954. She was met by around 20,000 Maoris from all over the country (Getty Images)

Those that knew and worked with her said she saw, acknowledged and supported the independence movement rolling across the African continent. She understood the growing need for a different kind of relationship with her beloved Commonwealth and for a new kind of monarchy, that didn’t follow in the footsteps of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who famously never strayed any further than Europe.

Take her coronation. It was the first to be broadcast on television, that meant reaching a global audience.

It is no coincidence then that on ascending the throne one of her first moves was an extensive state tour of the Commonwealth (that to the Queen must have seemed the best way to preserve the UK’s relevance abroad).

There in New Zealand she famously invented what has now been dubbed “the walkabout”.

It was the simple act of getting out of the car and meeting and greeting people in person. But it sparked countless photo opportunities, became a literal crowd pleaser and set the standard for monarchs across the world.

It was also not a coincidence that early on in her reign she travelled to Ghana, a former colony. There she was famously photographed dancing with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president post-independence.

A photo of the Queen dancing with Ghana’s first president (Central Press/AFP/Getty)
A photo of the Queen dancing with Ghana’s first president (Central Press/AFP/Getty)

And then in the 1980s, she bumped heads with her then-prime minister Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher over the PM’’s refusal to back sanctions on Apartheid South Africa following the Commonwealth heads of government summit.

“The Queen was known to be sympathetic to the African cause, not to any specific strategy or action,”  Sir Sonny Ramphal, the  Guyanese Commonwealth Secretary-General would later recall to BBC World Service.

“But in a general sense, she understood the time had come for the ways in South Africa to change,”

“She grew as an internationalist… she would have understood their aspirations for freedom.”

And all along the way, she “smoothed the path” for British diplomacy, and crucially business says Mr Arbiter who accompanied her on three state visits as a member of the press.

He recalled one royal trip to China where a delegation of British businessmen joined and was able to finally agree on a number of stalled contracts.

“They signed millions of pounds worth of deals off the back of the state visit,” he continues.

“Her loss will have a tremendous impact on the UK, her visits brought in business, created jobs and boosted the economy,” he adds.

While she was famously publicly quiet about her political beliefs (and emotions), she made statements in her actions, even late on in her career as she continued to travel despite her age.

The Queen waves to sailors in Malta in what would be her last foreign trip, 2015 (Getty Images)
The Queen waves to sailors in Malta in what would be her last foreign trip, 2015 (Getty Images)

In 2011 she made the first visit to Ireland by a British monarch in 100 years, and laid a wreath at a memorial for those who died fighting the British for independence. As Irish President Michael D Higgins said after her death, the Queen “did not shy away from the shadows of the past” during her trip where she “set out a new, forward-looking relationship between our nations.”

Her final trip abroad was in 2015 to Malta, when she was nearly 90 years old. After that she continued receiving foreign leaders in the UK, working right up until her final days.

Her impact but immense but her passing may trigger a fresh push for change.

Republican figures such as Adam Bandt, the leader of Australia’s Greens party - were quick to express their condolences but also to call for change and for debates on their constitutional status.

Brandt’s deputy New South Wales senator Mehreen Faruqi, was even more direct. She sent her condolences to “those who knew the Queen” but added: “I cannot mourn the leader of a racist empire built on stolen lives, land and wealth of colonised peoples.”

King Charles III may have to tread an even more careful line than his mother did in this rapidly changing world.

And he will have to live up to her colossal legacy.