Giorgi Badridze, Ambassador of Georgia to the Court of Saint James 2009-2013
The death of Queen Elizabeth II is an event of truly global magnitude. She made a profound impact not only on the history of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth she led for 70 years, but on that of the world. She ascended to the throne in 1952 when the Soviet Union was still ruled by Stalin, and reigned through 15 British Prime Ministers, 14 US Presidents and 7 Popes. I was among those many foreign ambassadors from whom Her Majesty received their letters of credence.
Queen Elizabeth II was one of the world’s longest-reigning monarchs, but this is not what determined her historic significance. Despite her limited real powers as a head of state, which were restricted to discharging mainly ceremonial functions, the Queen’s personal contribution to the process of the transformation of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth she led can hardly be overestimated.
When, in 1952, after the sudden death of George VI, 26-year-old Elizabeth ascended to the throne, Britain was still the world’s largest empire, stretched over nearly all continents. Through a process of decades-long decolonization and internal reforms, the United Kingdom transformed into a normal European state, but in a way which preserved her disproportionate influence in relation to her size and power. At the core of its “soft power”, which helped Britain to remain a center of gravitation for tens of newly independent former colonies, laid the British monarchy, whose reputation was largely based on the personal esteem and authority of Elizabeth II. Moreover, without romanticizing imperialism, we must admit that it is hard to think of many other empires providing a basis for a commonwealth which not only the absolute majority of former colonies would join voluntarily, but one which could also attract countries that had never been a part of the empire. Such countries include Mozambique, Rwanda, Gabon, and Togo (and Cameroon, only a small part of which was British). There are also countries which were expelled from the Commonwealth for violating democratic standards – like Zimbabwe, which has unsuccessfully been trying to restore its membership. This might well seem unusual for Russia’s neighbors, whom it tries to keep in its own “commonwealth” (in reality, in a sphere of exclusive influence) through threats and violence.
During the lifetime of Elizabeth II, the United Kingdom itself went through profound changes. The country experienced a separatist war in Northern Ireland, which ended with a peace agreement based on democratic principles. In 1999, through a process of devolution, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland gained regional autonomies. In 2014, Scotland held a referendum on independence, in which the majority voted to remain within the United Kingdom. It must be emphasized that one of two main factors which decided the outcome of the referendum was the respect and love of Scots for their Queen Elizabeth II. The other factor was based on their wish to remain part of the European Union. This implies that both the British monarchy and the unity of the United Kingdom will have certain challenges to overcome in the near future.
I must also share my personal impressions based on my interaction with Her Majesty. All foreign ambassadors to the United Kingdom start discharging their official duties by presenting their letters of credence to the head of state – the monarch. By the time, on 3 June 2009, I got a chance to present my credentials, Queen Elizabeth had been meeting ambassadors from countries of different significance and size routinely for 57 years. Every element of the ceremony, to the very last detail, was prescribed by protocol and left no room for improvisation. Still, the Queen managed to leave an impression of sincerity and warmth, demonstrating knowledge about my country and interest in my modest persona and my family. Knowing all too well how such ceremonies are conducted in other countries, where ambassadors are often left feeling they are on a conveyer belt (for instance, when heads of state receive credentials from groups of ambassadors at once), I appreciated the Royal protocol and the Queen’s royal courtesy even more.
I also know from my fellow ambassadors that, in every instance, the Queen displayed good knowledge about their countries and was well informed about international affairs. Our regular meetings lasted throughout my tenure, which included diplomatic functions at which she took time to speak with each ambassador individually. I also had the honor of participating in and interpreting a tête-à-tête meeting between the Queen and the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II, during His Holiness’s official visit to London in 2011.
Based on this experience, I can say without exaggeration that throughout my long diplomatic career, during which I had professional and personal contacts with representatives of many foreign countries, I have yet to meet a statesman who takes their duties with greater diligence and professionalism than Queen Elizabeth II.
Today, the whole world is watching the Queen’s mourning ceremonies taking place in Britain. Whatever one’s attitude toward the monarchy, it is hard not to see the degree of love which British people have displayed toward their Queen. The reason behind such affection is both the loyalty of British society for their traditions and also the great personal contribution of Elizabeth II, which, as I said, extended far beyond her constitutional powers as defined by the British constitutional monarchy.
And perhaps I should say a few words about the future of the monarchic system. It should not be surprising that in the 21st century, many people consider the monarchy a relic of the past. Such a system has survived in just a handful of countries, of which all European monarchies maintain purely symbolic, ceremonial functions. However, it must be emphasized that the British political system is unique in many respects, including in the way it has formed over centuries through an evolutionary process, in which the monarchy has maintained an organic part. The monarchy has adjusted to the realities and the needs of each new phase in the country’s socio-economic and political development, and is currently performing quite a practical role, especially in maintaining the unity of the state.
It is beyond doubt that the loyalty of millions of Britons toward the monarchy is largely the reflection of their respect and fondness for Queen Elizabeth II, who earned it through her long and devoted service to her nation.