When Elizabeth II ascended to the throne on 6 February 1952, Britain was just beginning to pull itself out of profound post-war austerity. The twin events of the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Queen’s coronation in June 1953 marked out a period of renewal when Britain moved into a crucial period of affluence. This affluence was built on the hard work of migrants and refugees.
In the immediate wake of the Second World War Britain took in tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from across Europe and around the Empire – most of these people were actively recruited by a government who knew that without the hard work and dedication of these foreigners Britain would not be able to rebuild quickly or, perhaps, at all.
The late Forties witnessed massive population movements in Europe. Until recently they were the largest Europe had ever seen. Many thousands of people were displaced, homeless, trying to locate loved ones and either return home or build a new life for themselves. Britain welcomed many thousands of these people with open arms.
The reception of these migrants and refugees was not universally positive. But it was overwhelmingly so. While many have chalked up this largely positive attitude to this being a period of full employment, we also need to look at how this attitude fit into a sense of what it was to “be British” at this time.
Not only were these people materially useful but it was seen as Britain’s role, or even Britain’s responsibility, to help those in need. This fit very well into the carefully crafted British reputation of international humanitarianism and benevolent imperialism that elites, including the Queen, were bound up in perpetuating. In her first Christmas address as Queen in 1952, Elizabeth clearly espoused a vision of the Empire and Commonwealth as having the potential to be of “immeasurable benefit to all humanity”.
But what happened to this reputation at the end of empire? This was not a question that was easily or immediately answered. As Dean Acheson, former US Secretary of State, said in 1962, Britain had lost an empire but had not yet found a role in the world.
For the Queen, the answer was that Britain should continue to cultivate this reputation and maintain her international position through the Commonwealth. The Queen’s vision for the Commonwealth was much bigger than simply a way to continue Britain’s political or economic dominance. Her rhetoric was that of “family” – a family of nations holding similar values and ideals which could be a positive force for change in the world. The pressure that was put to bear on apartheid South Africa in the late Fifties and early Sixties was testament to the way that the Commonwealth could be used to oppose inequality and injustice.
The extent to which the Queen’s subjects have supported this vision has not always been clear. From the middle of the century there were voices within politics and the public who wanted Britain to retreat entirely. Those, like Enoch Powell, who advocated that Britain take her ball and go home if the “colonials” didn’t want to play by her rules. His were calls for a retreat into insularity in which Britain “took care of her own” and shut everyone else out. And his notion of who was included as one of Britain’s “own” – the British “family” – was extremely narrow.
While Powell’s vision did, and does, have a lot of supporters, current responses to the refugee crisis in Europe remind us of another vision of Britain and Britain’s international position that persists and may have more in common with the Queen’s own vision. In the last week it has become clear that a huge number of the British public don’t agree with the narrow view of Britain’s international and humanitarian role espoused by the likes of Powell, Farage and Cameron.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds and huge quantities of supplies have been raised by “ordinary” Britons to help those in need. The motivation of these people is quite simple – to help others. When pressed, however, many of these people fall back on Britain’s past as a humanitarian leader to explain their actions. Clearly this past, and the way this past has been imagined and discussed, still matters.
If you read the tributes to the Queen in the press this week, you would be forgiven for forgetting about the Empire and Commonwealth, or at least seeing them as something firmly in Britain’s past. But the legacy of empire lingers on. The hangover of empire sits on the British psyche in a variety of ways. We cannot understand the makeup of the British people without this legacy. We cannot understand Britain’s international role without this legacy.
As we reflect on the reign of Elizabeth II we have an opportunity to reflect on Britain’s reputation and role in the world and ask – is this what we want a post-imperial Britain to be? If not, what do we do about it?
Dr Jodi Burkett is a social and cultural historian at the University of Portsmouth. She is author of “Constructing Post-Imperial Britain: Britishness, ‘race’ and the radical left in the 1960s”. As a Principal Lecturer in History, she runs the “Students in Twentieth Century Europe” and the “Citizenship, Race and Belonging” Research Networks at the University.