Should Britain’s Queen Elizabeth be awarded the Nobel peace prize for her role in holding together that curious animal, the 53-country Commonwealth of nations? The not so muted whisper in London is that since nominations are due by the end of January, some Commonwealth leaders are quietly planning just this.
With Marlborough House here being scrubbed down for next week’s largest ever Commonwealth summit, it isn’t surprising that attention should turn to two key figures. One is Jawaharlal Nehru who merits a passing nod for having made it possible for an independent republic to be a member of a group that acknowledges Britain’s monarch as its head. The other is the Queen of whose keen interest in the Commonwealth, especially in its Asian, African and West Indian members, no one doubts. But no one keeps her own counsel more assiduously than Her Majesty. It’s been said she would rather win the Derby, but that only underlines that fact that almost everything said about her is hearsay.
No one knows whether exposure to the Nobel process would be to her liking, or would benefit her symbolic position above the fray. But Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s global stature wasn’t diminished by not being granted the Nobel peace prize. Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho didn’t even think it worth his acceptance. Nor did its grant transform Henry Kissinger into the apostle of peace. Instead, it provoked Tom Lehrer, the American satirist, to comment that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.” Golda Meir was no less scathing when the prize went to another Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, and Yasser Arafat. She thought a couple of Oscars would have been more appropriate.
Since Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne for so long, almost everything we think of has happened during her reign. South Africa’s apartheid regime was dismantled, civil war averted in Rhodesia which emerged as Zimbabwe, prompting Rajiv Gandhi to extol the Commonwealth as “a fighting organisation”. The Queen watched democracy being restored (and lost) in Pakistan and Fiji, and peace achieved under Northern Ireland’s Good Friday agreement. No one really knows how much of this owed anything to her personal intervention or commitment. She gave Marlborough House to the Commonwealth, and it’s believed that but for her, Margaret Thatcher would have kicked the Commonwealth secretariat out of government buildings in London and turned Britain’s back on the organisation.
Boris Johnson’s comment that the Queen loved being greeted by “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” supposedly marked the absence of any racism in her thinking. There is other and more credible evidence of the Queen’s colour blindness. In contrast, when Australia’s Malcolm Fraser and the Nigerian Emeka Anyaoku were in the running for the job of Commonwealth secretary-general, Mrs Thatcher’s tart comment was that of the two blacks she preferred the African.
Much more information about the Queen’s husband’s interests and activities is available in the public domain. He helped found the World Wildlife Fund which led to undertakings like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, while the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is believed to have benefited more than six million young people in 140 countries. One of the few things we do know about his wife is that people regard the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, a £1 million award, as the “engineers’ Nobel”. Otherwise, her influence — if any — is exerted behind the scenes.
A Nobel award would drag the Queen into the public gaze. She would be like Aung San Suu Kyi of whose silence on the Rohingya plight, a New York Times correspondent wrote, “We could perhaps bring worldwide shame upon her and her government by petitioning the Nobel Committee to revoke her prize. It has never been done, but perhaps it is now time.” Even Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the award, is unsparing in her criticism of Daw Suu Kyi.
No one would bother to ask whether any public condemnation would further the Rohingya cause or damage it even more. As the NYT correspondent added, “When one is lauded for his or her performance, it is incumbent upon that person to continue to earn that recognition so as not to sully the honour.”
That means being under permanent scrutiny. It would be like the catharsis after Diana’s death, but all the time. Could the monarchy bear it? We are reminded of Bagehot. “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic”.