Robert Hardman: Check your history Harry before making factual errors

ROBERT HARDMAN: Dear Harry, check your history before making howlers about your grandmother’s finest achievement

As Harry demands the Commonwealth atone for its past — apparently confusing it with the Empire — the Mail’s ROBERT HARDMAN, who has covered the organisation over many years, pens this heartfelt open letter to the Duke . . . 

You were one of the best things to happen to the Commonwealth in the past few years when you became the passionate new royal envoy for an organisation covering a third of the Earth’s population.

I was in the room at the 2018 London Summit when you took your seat as the Queen’s new Commonwealth Youth Ambassador. Given that two-thirds of the Commonwealth are under the age of 30, it was an important role.

A month later, I was at Windsor Castle to see you and your dazzling bride step out into the world as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Stretching behind you both was that poignant and clever tribute to both the Commonwealth and its Head, the Queen.

The Duchess’s veil (like the Queen’s Coronation dress in 1953) had been embroidered with the flowers of every single Commonwealth nation. There were 53 of them on your wedding day, though it’s now gone up to an all-time record of 54.

At the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding in 2018 (pictured), Meghan’s veil had been embroidered with the flowers of every single Commonwealth nation

That’s the funny thing about the Commonwealth. It keeps on getting bigger. People keep wanting to join this post-imperial ‘club’ — even if they were nothing to do with the British Empire in the first place.

Which is why so many of us were surprised and disappointed by the tone of your remarks this week. Joining an online discussion with Commonwealth youth leaders from your new home in California, you made it clear that the overarching priority for the organisation must be to atone for its wrongs. 

‘When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past,’ you declared. ‘So many people have done such an incredible job of acknowledging the past and trying to right those wrongs, but I think we all acknowledge there is so much more still to do.’

This struck such an odd note that I initially wondered whether you had been misquoted. But then I watched the full video and there was the Duchess saying the same.

On the question of ‘the Commonwealth’, she said it raised a question on both a ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ level: ‘What have we done in our past that we put our hand up? This is a moment of reckoning where so many people go: “You know what, I need to own that. Maybe I didn’t do the right thing there.” ’

Harry (pictured left alongside Meghan) announced in a video conference with Commonwealth leaders that we cannot ‘ move forward unless we acknowledge the past’. Perhaps he got the Commonwealth confused with the British Empire

It is a common enough mistake among people with no great interest in the subject, but it’s a baffling error for the grandson of the Queen (pictured right with Princes Charles)

She also said: ‘We’re going to have be a little uncomfortable right now, because it’s only in pushing through that discomfort that we can get to the other side of this.’ 

I’m not entirely comfortable saying this, but you seem to assume that the Commonwealth and the British Empire are one and the same thing. 

It is a common enough mistake among people with no great interest in the subject, but a pretty baffling howler for the President of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (as you continue to be, despite relinquishing the Youth Ambassador role).

The modern Commonwealth was born as the Empire shrivelled. It was, and is, an entirely voluntary organisation created in 1949 with ‘the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth’. The whole point was that no one had to belong.

And yet given the choice, almost all the free and independent nations which had once been part of the British Empire gladly signed up to this new creation. To this day, 15 of them (not including Britain) freely retain your grandmother as their head of state. 

A few of those have even had the odd referendum on replacing her with a president but, each time, the voters have vetoed the idea. No compulsion there, either.

Just as no one has ever been compelled to join this club, so those who leave or who get kicked out soon end up trying to get back in (the Maldives have just been readmitted after a few years in the cold).

It is hard to think of an organisation which has had a better record in confronting colonial oppression in modern times, be it bringing about the end of white rule in Rhodesia or fighting apartheid in South Africa.

One of Nelson Mandela’s first executive acts on being elected president of a new and democratic South Africa in 1994 was to resume its membership of the Commonwealth (before it even returned to the UN).

No one was more delighted than the Head of the Commonwealth herself, as I discovered when writing my book, Queen Of The World. 

In 1994, when Nelson Mandela (pictured middle) was elected president of South Africa , one of his first tasks to resume its membership of the Commonwealth, which delighted the Queen (second right)

She would go on to become a great friend of Mandela (one of the only non-royal world leaders who would routinely call her ‘Elizabeth’ and get away with it), as she has with so many of those titans of Commonwealth history.

Some, including Jawaharlal Nehru, founding father of modern India, had even been imprisoned under British imperial rule. 

However, they always drew a very clear distinction between the British government on the one hand, and the Queen and her Commonwealth on the other.

That is because she has always drawn a clear line herself. When her British Prime Minister Edward Heath (who loathed the Commonwealth) tried to keep her away from the 1973 Commonwealth summit in Ottawa, she went behind his back and accepted an invitation in her capacity as Queen of Canada.

During the Sixties, when Harold Wilson tried to treat the first holder of the newly created post of Commonwealth secretary-general like a junior clerk, the Queen invited him round for dinner. She then redrafted the order of precedence to make him the most senior diplomat in London. 

Shortly after Ghana had removed her as head of state, she still ignored bomb threats and pressed ahead with her 1961 state visit to the fledgling republic (against the advice of many in Parliament), making world headlines as she danced with the fiery President Nkrumah.

The white queen dancing with the black father of independence, at the very moment that South Africa was being ostracised for its hated apartheid regime, spoke louder than any oratory. All through her reign, she has quietly but purposefully endorsed Nehru’s original Commonwealth mission statement: ‘a touch of healing’.

Which is why, Sir, your remarks go against all that the Queen has attempted to do over all these years.

Prince Harry (pictured middle)’s latest remarks go against what the Queen (right) has been trying to build over the last few decades regarding the Commonwealth

‘It’s about seeking consensus and positives and looking forward,’ says one senior ex-diplomat. ‘If you want to start raking over the past, you’ll soon find muck but it won’t be Britain that tries to shut down that conversation.’ He points to the entrenched racial divides in Malaysia, Guyana, Fiji and elsewhere.

The Commonwealth may not be the force it once was. It might embrace diversity (encompassing every major faith on every continent) but it can also be equally diverse when it comes to human rights. 

Many members, for example, still criminalise homosexuality; more than 20 of them still have the death penalty. It doesn’t pretend to be perfect, but gets things done among nations with a shared language and legal code, all of whom have pledged to improve their democratic standards.

As such, it remains an important badge of respect, a fact underlined by the queue of countries which want to join despite no links to Britain, imperial or otherwise.

You may recall you yourself visited one of them on your tour of southern Africa last year — Angola. Other non-British ex-colonies such as Cameroon and Mozambique are already members.

Last year, Prince Harry visited Angola (pictured) one of the countries which want to join the Commonwealth despite no links to Britain

None is more enthusiastic than Rwanda. Until the pandemic intervened, the former Belgian colony had even been due to host last month’s Commonwealth summit, with your father, the Prince of Wales — and future Head — opening the proceedings.

Yes, we are in the midst of a global debate about racism. As you say in an under-reported section of your speech, you want to be in the vanguard of change: ‘Everything is coming to a head. Change is happening far quicker than before. We just need this movement to continue this momentum for as long as it takes.’

But in painting the Commonwealth as a problem rather than an answer, you are undermining an organisation which has gone to great trouble to embrace you. 

And, in turn, you are devaluing one of the great successes of your grandmother’s record-breaking reign.

Yours, Robert Hardman 

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