What's the future of the Commonwealth under King Charles?

The British monarch also faces a spreading wave of republicanism in 15 countries where he is still the head of state

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 18 Sep 2022, 10:17 PM

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth today marks the end of a 10-day period that witnessed an outpouring of emotion and respect for the 96-year-old monarch, who defied age and more to reign for 70 years of change and continuity.

The period saw tens of thousands of people waiting for 24 hours, queuing to queue – hailed as the most British thing ever – to see the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall for a few moments. But Monday also heralds the formal beginning of a new era with King Charles as the head of state, who faces many challenges in the royal in-tray. One of them is the future of the Commonwealth, a post-imperial club that his mother held dear, and the spreading wave of republicanism in 15 countries where the British monarch is still the head of state. The Queen’s personality and rapport with Commonwealth leaders was the glue that kept the 56-member group together, even when there were growing questions about what exactly was its point in the modern world.

The British Empire was already in decline when Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth in 1952. India, the largest of its possessions, was already independent. But Britain still had 70 overseas territories that one by one became independent during her reign. When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, King Charles, then a prince, saw it as the ‘end of the empire’.

Today, the British monarch is the head of state of 15 countries – called ‘Commonwealth realms’ – but there are already reports of the arrangement being reconsidered in some of them. The 15 countries are: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and the United Kingdom.

The most recent Commonwealth realm to part ways with the British monarchy was Barbados, in November 2021, when it swore in Sandra Mason as its first president, the sun setting over nearly 400 years of the monarchy’s reign there.

King Charles, who attended the transition in Bridgetown as the Queen’s representative, said at the time: “The creation of this republic offers a new beginning. From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude”.

In the context of Black Lives Matter movement and growing demands in various countries for apologies, reparations and return of colonial loot, King Charles’ accession to the throne is seen as a moment of reckoning. Hours after the Queen’s death, Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said he will call a referendum within three years on the country becoming a republic, but insisted that “this is not an act of hostility or any difference between Antigua and Barbuda and the monarchy, but it is the final step to complete that circle of independence, to ensure that we are truly a sovereign nation”.

In Kingston, Jamaica, there is less emotion about the Queen passing away, and more recall of the monarchy over centuries presiding over slavery and the exploitation of black people and their resources in Africa and other colonies. In March, the visit of Prince William and his wife, Kate, was widely panned. They were accused of harking back to colonial days when they shook hands with crowds behind a wire mesh fence and rode in the back of a Land Rover, just as the Queen had done 60 years ago. Demonstrators during the visit accused them of benefiting from the “blood, tears and sweat” of slaves, while in the Bahamas they were urged to acknowledge that the British economy was “built on the backs” of Bahamians and to pay reparations. Prime Minister Andrew Holness bluntly told the royal couple that “we are moving on”, adding that Jamaica intends to be “an independent, developed, prosperous country”.

In Australia, there is already belief across the political spectrum that the country will ultimately become a republic, but not anytime soon. Former prime minister Julia Gillard has endorsed the view of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that there is no rush to part ways with the British monarchy, agreeing to a national debate on the issue. Albanese believes that the Queen’s death has made Australians “more conscious of our system of government”, but has refused to commit to a timeframe on holding a referendum on it. For many Australians, the Queen represented continuity, but there is a wide belief that the Queen’s passing away would trigger a period of reflection on the country’s constitutional arrangements. But in neighbouring New Zealand, for the moment there are no such plans to consider a move towards republicanism.

The Queen’s fondness for the Commonwealth was also reflected in the location of its secretariat: in Marlborough House in Pall Mall, just down the road from Buckingham Palace. The group’s fate under King Charles is a matter for the future, but it has not exactly been popular among the British public; in fact, awareness of its existence and its role is low. As Philip Murphy, director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, writes: “For Britain’s administrative elite, the Commonwealth is a bit like a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations.

It hasn’t told the right time for decades, but no one has the heart to take such a treasured heirloom to the tip”. The secretariat, funded by contributions from all member-countries, produces a large number of studies, documents and proclamations on various issues. The latest Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held in Rwanda in June.

The in-tray on King Charles’ desk not only has the issue of republicanism in the 15 Commonwealth realms (including demands in the UK to abolish the monarchy), but also the direction he would like the Commonwealth to take: more of the same or encourage ways to achieve its ‘true potential’?

His position as head of the Commonwealth was confirmed during the 2018 CHOGM in London, but now the member-states will keenly watch how he unveils his vision for the future, particularly the 31 small island countries that benefit the most from their membership of the group.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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