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Sunday, 27 November 2022
The Commonwealth faces an uncertain future under King Charles III
Ian Black

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the accession of her eldest son, King Charles III, has already had far-reaching political and historical repercussions, not least on the future of the Commonwealth – mostly the former British Empire – as well as the fate of the United Kingdom. The new king demonstratively visited all the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the week after his “darling mama’s” passing.

 The leaders of the 54 countries that make up the Commonwealth of Nations (its official name) are all expected to attend the late Queen’s state funeral in Westminster Abbey on Monday, September 19. That is likely, nevertheless, to be a key moment in the history of an organization that has formally existed since 1931, when Princess Elizabeth was only six years old. The seven-decade-long Queen has always been its beating heart.

 The first key members were Canada, Australia and New Zealand and they were followed by African, Caribbean and Asian countries that became independent in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Fourteen Commonwealth nations still have the British monarch – now Charles III - as their head of state. They were the first to be informed about the sad news.

 The “wind of change” that eventually brought about the end of British rule began in India in 1947. In 1952, when Princess Elizabeth’s father, George VI, died, she was visiting Kenya. Within a decade of her coronation in 1953, Sudan, Malaya, Ghana, Somaliland, Nigeria, Cyprus, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Sierra Leone, Kuwait and Uganda all achieved independence.

 “Today, 70 years later, another wind is being felt across the Commonwealth” wrote the historian David Olusoga in the Observer. “A mass awakening to the realities and legacies of imperialism and slavery. New scholarship and new debates around history are changing attitudes in many of the 54 ‘independent and equal nations’ of the Commonwealth – countries that are collectively home to 2.5 billion people, most of them not white and 60% of them under the age of 29.”

 Racism, slavery, prejudice and prioritizing the interests of the UK over its colonies have become an obvious and modern way of studying the long history of the British Empire. Barbados became independent last year in advance of a disastrous tour of the Caribbean undertaken by Prince William (the oldest son of the new king and now the heir to the throne) and the Duchess of Cambridge in March, which starkly revealed the great gulf that exists between the monarchy and many of the people of that Commonwealth – particularly the young.

  Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, elected to a three-year term in May, began laying the foundations for a nationwide referendum on transitioning the country into a republic. Last Sunday, however, he paused his timeline in deference to the Queen, saying now is the time to pay tribute to her memory, not push for swift change. He has said he will not call a referendum in his current first term as premier. The next federal election is scheduled for 2025. 

 Like her Australian counterpart, New Zealand ‘s prime minister Jacinda Ardern supports her country's transition to a republic but, after the Queen's death, said she will not push for that change at any time during her own government. 

 Just after Charles was formally proclaimed king last Saturday, the premier of the tiny eastern Caribbean island country of Antigua and Barbuda said he will hold a referendum on transitioning to a republic and removing King Charles as head of state within the next three years.

 In March Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced his intent to obtain independence directly to his guests Prince William and Kate, now the new Prince and Princess of Wales, on their official visit to the Caribbean island country. During their visit a protest was held outside the British High Commission in Kingston, the capital. Jamaicans demanded an apology and reparations for Britain's role in the slave trade from Africa. In the age of Black Lives Matter and the felling of colonial-era statues that is hardly surprising.

 Rising discourse on social media has divided non-white communities. Some have argued that this is the time to speak out about ways the royal family have exploited and oppressed countries throughout history, while others believe it's insensitive to do so. Yet, is there really ever a "good" time to have difficult conversations about the way the monarchy has profited from colonialism? Charles seems impressively aware of that noxious topic.

 Philip Murphy, a professor at the University of London and former director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, said that although Buckingham Palace had “taken a relaxed view” about countries removing the Queen as head of state, “the British government has been less consistent about that.” Ministers are thought to be anxious to preserve the soft power benefits of the Commonwealth after Brexit – the still controversial decision to leave the European Union.

 It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Commonwealth’s relationship with Britain is likely to be very different under King Charles III compared to his late mother’s long and popular rule.