So, the news is out: Her Majesty is not going to Sri Lanka for the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Some observers have expressed surprise at this decision; others suspicion that it may be motivated by a desire to avoid political controversy because of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. In reality, it is surely simply driven by a desire to ensure that our octogenarian queen and her even older husband are spared the most gruelling of overseas trips. Sri Lanka is a hot and humid country and quite a lengthy flight away. Whilst the trip would have been short by comparison with some of the more extensive overseas tours she has undertaken previously, it would have been pretty intensive. At CHOGM sessions Her Majesty usually holds meetings with quite a number of heads of government, as well as making a speech herself. She would also doubtless have been expected to undertake a series of engagements in the country itself. But I also believe that there is a desire to ensure that Prince Charles is given greater exposure throughout the Commonwealth, especially as he is by no means guaranteed the title of head of the Commonwealth. He has to earn it. Getting around and seeing the countries for himself is a key part of this. There is a precedent which dictates he could be, but no long-standing tradition. It would be dangerous for the Queen, no matter how popular she remains throughout the world, to hold on to the reins entirely until the day of her death. People need to see their future King in action as more than just a poorly-practised understudy.
Whatever the reason for the decision to send Charles to Sri Lanka rather than The Queen herself, I firmly believe she will venture overseas again in the future. She may or may not make it back all the way down under to New Zealand or Australia, though I am quite sure if it is at all possible she will. She and the Duke have, after all, not visited New Zealand since her Golden Jubilee tour of 2002 and she holds both countries in very high esteem and affection. During the most recent trip to Australia for the 2011 CHOGM summit in Perth (pictured below with Julia Gillard), the Queen seemed as popular as ever and one republican commentator observed that each and every one of her visits put the republican movement back 20 years or more. Perhaps, non-realm Commonwealth countries may be less likely to receive a royal visit. Extensive visits of any kind simply aren’t practical any longer.
It would be a mistake however to assume that all overseas travel is off the agenda. The Duke has just returned from a visit, albeit brief, to Canada, and he is nearly 92. Although security prevents Her Majesty from doing so, he frequently visits troops in the Middle East when his schedule allows. It would also seem probable that the Foreign Office will wish to ensure that our greatest diplomatic weapons in the competition to boost international trade and inter-country ties, are utilised to full effect. It seems inevitable that trips to our near neighbours, especially France and Germany will occur at some point. State visits to France tend to happen every ten years or so. After the Queen’s hugely successful first State visit to the Republic of Ireland, a further visit to reinforce the benefits of this most visible facet of friendship could easily be arranged in the next few years. The government will no doubt be keen to help boost the profile of newer EU members, and the UK’s trade with such countries, and so nations such as Croatia and Romania may well be granted the prestigious gift of a State visit by Her Majesty in the coming years. It is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that, notwithstanding the British government’s desire to re-build its relationship with Moscow, a ground-breaking State visit to Ukraine could also be on the cards. Even more controversially, might she finally be permitted to visit Israel or Egypt, prominent and significant countries, neither of which she has been allowed to venture to thus far.
We could speculate endlessly about where Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh may venture to next. What seems certain to me is that whilst they are physically capable of getting on an aeroplane, they will do all they can to fulfil the part of their roles they cherish – representing the United Kingdom overseas, whether in the Commonwealth or elsewhere. Their sense of utmost dedication and duty will ensure that continues to be the case for years to come.