Why the Queen is the ultimate example of soft power

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Queen Elizabeth at The Royal Windsor Horse Show - Chris Jackson
Queen Elizabeth at The Royal Windsor Horse Show - Chris Jackson

It was what you might call a perfect piece of ballroom diplomacy. An expertly choreographed moment on a royal tour where so much was at stake. It was 1961 and a young Queen Elizabeth was visiting Ghana. The British Empire was crumbling and a new relationship between former colonies was being negotiated. Ghana was the first in sub-saharan Africa to renounce British rule and the president, Kwame Nkrumah, was plotting a union of non-aligned states which could have left the Commonwealth as little more than a group of wealthy white countries.

At 35, she had been Queen for just nine years, but the future of Britain’s relationship with countries like Ghana rested on her shoulders. She had to show on that tour that she accepted the winds of change sweeping away the former Empire and usher in a new era, one in which an independent Ghana could be an integral part of the Commonwealth.

One night, at a banquet, came the moment that would go down in history when Her Majesty took to the dancefloor with Nkrumah. The photos appeared around the world. The story often told of that foxtrot (recently immortalised in the Crown) is that it was spontaneous; an itinerary from the night buried in the royal archive proves otherwise. The dance was pre-planned – a chance for the two leaders to meet as equals, not in a debate but on the dancefloor.

After that trip, Ghana remained in the Commonwealth. Nkrumah, meanwhile, declared that the “personal regard and affection” which Ghanaians held for the Queen would remain steadfast. The same sentiment, you suspect, may not have been afforded a prime minister.

Soft diplomacy. It’s the term that came up again and again while I was making The Royal Diplomat, a programme for the BBC World Service in which I delved into the archives and spoke to the people who have witnessed the Queen’s skill as a political operator up close.

She has visited more than 100 countries, hosted more than 100 world leaders. She’s held weekly meetings with 14 prime ministers and borne witness to more change in her 70 years on the throne than her successors are ever likely to.

Still, she is broadly thought of as a ceremonial figure. She’s the pomp and circumstance, the gilded state banquets and the staged photocalls, but she is rarely considered a diplomat in her own right.

The dance with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah was a chance for the two leaders to meet as equals - Central Press/Getty Images
The dance with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah was a chance for the two leaders to meet as equals - Central Press/Getty Images

What became clear to me from my interviews with Commonwealth experts and conversations with her former private secretary, politicians such as David Cameron and Enda Kenny, and people like David Eisenhower (grandson of President Eisenhower), who remembers meeting her when he was just nine years old, is that there are countless times when Her Majesty’s ability to build relationships, to charm, to step in at the right moment or offer gentle guidance have changed the course of history.

Kenny recalls how, in 2011, the Queen’s visit to Ireland went a long way towards repairing some of the wounds left by the Troubles. “The first thing she did was to agree to come to Ireland,” he told me. “The second thing was to prepare for it astutely and in detail. You know, deep down, there was not just symbolism, but a massive effort by her and by her late husband to get that visit right.”

Cameron, then prime minister, can still remember the “gasp” that rolled through the room at Dublin castle, once the seat of British rule in Ireland, when she began her speech in Gaelic. “It was a brilliant moment.”

“For Queen Elizabeth II to say what she said in the way she said it brought an end to a great deal of the hostility that had been there and the difficulties in doing business with Britain for so many years,” Kenny told me.

He remembers escorting Her Majesty to Cork Airport at the end of the trip. “She turned to me on the red carpet and she said: ‘You know, of all the royal visits that I have conducted in 60 years, this is the one that I really wanted to do.’”

Enda Kenny on The Queen's visit: 'There was not just symbolism, but a massive effort by her and by her late husband to get that visit right.' - PETER MUHLY/AFP via Getty Images
Enda Kenny on The Queen's visit: 'There was not just symbolism, but a massive effort by her and by her late husband to get that visit right.' - PETER MUHLY/AFP via Getty Images

In her time on the throne, the Queen has built relationships with foreign leaders that often predate her own prime ministers. Though she wields little political power officially, she hasn’t shied away from offering a “quiet word” when she feels it might be helpful. David Owen, Britain’s foreign secretary from 1977-1979, remembers a summit in Zambia in 1979 in which the president, Kenneth Kaunda, was expected to make critical comments of British policy on the Rhodesian crisis.

“She was dealing with different leaders who she had known when they were really relatively young men,” Owen said. “She knew Kenneth Kaunda very well when he was a young man, a young president. So she would talk quite openly and frankly. That was ground she could deal with; that was history. She wasn’t telling us our policy.”

She went out of her way, he said, to explain things to Margaret Thatcher, helping to soothe her suspicions about Kaunda. “I think she would put into the conversation little asides to indicate that Kenneth Kaunda was actually a nice person and actually a practising Christian.”

Kaunda, I’m told, received his own “quiet word” from the Queen in the car and removed the derogatory comments from his speech. That discreet influence coming into play once again. The tools employed by a skilled diplomat who isn’t allowed to intervene directly in political disputes, but who has a unique ability to “douse tension”, as one person I spoke to put it.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a yellow dress with a yellow-and-white hat, shaking hands with Zambian politician Kenneth Kaunda - Serge Lemoine/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a yellow dress with a yellow-and-white hat, shaking hands with Zambian politician Kenneth Kaunda - Serge Lemoine/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the end of the summit the atmosphere had changed. Thatcher formally agreed to reject Ian Smith’s regime and back a new constitution under black majority rule for Rhodesia, which was to be renamed Zimbabwe.

Robin Janvrin, the Queen’s former private secretary, recalled the time in 1991 when she stepped in to save what could have been an awkward moment. Her Majesty was in Africa again for an important Commonwealth summit in the wake of apartheid and sanctions on South Africa. “The Queen was giving her traditional dinner for the heads of government,” recalled Lord Janvrin, “and lo and behold as we were milling around before dinner Nelson Mandela walked through the door.”

South Africa was not at that point part of the Commonwealth and Mandela was not a head of government, but the Queen understood the significance of the moment. “The Queen immediately seeing this said ‘lay an extra place, I mean let’s not muck around with this’ and Mandela joined the dinner,” said Lord Janvrin.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku, then Commonwealth Secretary General, remembered Mandela’s surprise at how informed the Queen was. “He was very touched by the degree of sympathy that the Queen had for his cause.”

South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994 and the following year Nelson Mandela  – now president – hosted the Queen for a historic state visit, her first to the country since 1947.

The Queen Elizabeth II greets Nelson Mandela - CHRIS BACON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The Queen Elizabeth II greets Nelson Mandela - CHRIS BACON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Looking back through photographs from state dinners and royal tours, it strikes you how much of her life has been spent as the only woman in a sea of men. In some cases, it was her beauty and the glamour that came with the Crown that made all the difference when dealing with world leaders. Eisenhower remembers being taken out of school in 1957 to come to his grandfather’s White House to meet the young Queen and Prince Philip. It was a year after the Suez crisis which had been a foreign policy disaster.

“I can remember her reserve. I can remember her dignity which was palpable. I remember her beauty. I remember my grandparents. They were excited about this couple,” Eisenhower told me.

The impact her visit had at such a chaotic time was “huge”. She “must have been aware”, he felt, that her glamour “added to her authority”.

Her femininity, it strikes me, has been one of her key attributes as a Head of State. She is, by all accounts, a naturally brilliant listener. Indeed she once referred to herself as “a sponge”.

“I have had quite a lot of prime ministers,” she said in a BBC documentary in 1992. “They unburden themselves or they tell me what’s going on or if they’ve got any problems and sometimes one can help in that way too.

“They know that one can be impartial so to speak. I think it’s rather nice to feel that one’s a sort of sponge and everybody can come and tell one things…”

After 70 years on the throne, there must have been so many extraordinary, intimate conversations had at pivotal moments in our history. So many times when the Queen has wielded that so-called soft diplomacy. More, inevitably, than we will ever know.

The Royal Diplomat airs on the BBC World Service at 12pm on Saturday 28 May

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