The Commonwealth of Nations, a group of 56 member states comprising mostly former territories of the British Empire, is home to 2.5 billion people – a third of the global population – and represents US$13.1 trillion in gross domestic product. The group also hosts 32 of the world’s smallest 42 states.
There are still 15 Commonwealth realms where the British monarch remains the head of state, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and multiple island nations of the Pacific and the Caribbean. Yet the death of Queen Elizabeth raises uncertainty over what the future holds for the group, and in particular over the role of the British royal family.
The Commonwealth dates back to a meeting in 1926 between Britain’s King George V – grandfather of Elizabeth – and the leaders of the United Kingdom and six Dominions (semi-independent territories that had the British monarch as head of state), where it was agreed that each country should be regarded as autonomous and equal. The declaration was made official in 1931.
In 1949, the Commonwealth was updated to allow nations that wanted to become republics, like India, to keep their membership, leading to its current configuration. Although the Commonwealth was formed to create unity among former and current British territories, it remains a symbol of Britain’s colonial history. For many, it is a reminder of the economic inequality that exists among former British colonies. As former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said in 2015, “the ‘wealth’ is not ‘common’ at all, it belongs to only four members and the rest are poor”.
The group is facing mounting challenges. For one, there are ideological differences between member nations that date back to the period of colonial rule. Second, in more recent decades, nations have prioritised other international groupings – both economic and regional – that promised greater diplomatic and economic value, reducing the Commonwealth’s importance. Third, movement within the Commonwealth has become more restricted since Britain introduced visas, discouraging the notion of a “common wealth”.
Lastly, the British monarchy has failed to make amends for its colonial past, having provided no reparations to Caribbean nations for the injustices of slavery, and offered no formal apology either for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 in India ordered by then Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, or for the Bengal famine of 1943. These unhealed wounds have divided the Commonwealth further.
Objections to the British monarchy have been growing stronger among citizens of the Commonwealth; many are unwilling to recognise a monarch as the head of democratic nations. Prince William and his wife Kate’s recent Caribbean tour was not received positively, with protests breaking out in host nations.
Public sentiment is lukewarm in larger, wealthier nations, too. In Canada, 51 per cent of the population opposes having the British monarch as the country’s head of state. Australia has been pushing for a referendum on becoming a republic since 1999, while New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said she expects the country to become a republic in the next few decades. Last week, anti-royal protesters gathered in Scotland and England following the death of Queen Elizabeth, reflecting the waning national popularity of the British royal family.
Given that Barbados has already removed the British monarch as its head of state and Jamaica plans to do the same by 2025, the death of Queen Elizabeth could serve as a catalyst for more Commonwealth realms to follow suit.
Indeed, the queen – the longest-reigning monarch in British history – was a powerful symbol of Commonwealth unity among its leaders. King Charles faces a challenging task in keeping the Commonwealth together.
At 73, Charles is the oldest person to take the British throne. Along with the sovereign title, he inherits the position of head of the Commonwealth, and 14 of its nations (the Commonwealth realms) will automatically regard him as their new head of state. This transition, although only ceremonial, is not voted on by the citizens of these realms, raising issues of legitimacy in democratic countries that include a G7 member (Canada) and a G20 nation (Australia).
While the Commonwealth realms retained the British monarch as their head of state during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, they might not choose to do the same for King Charles. The new king has had his fair share of episodes that could make Commonwealth realm leaders uncomfortable. For instance, receiving 3 million euros (US$3.2 million) in bags of cash from the former prime minister of Qatar as a donation to his charitable fund and £1 million (US$1.1 million) from the family of Osama bin Laden did little to boost Charles’ public image. Further dampening public perception is the king’s strained relations with the immensely popular late Princess Diana.
Should the Commonwealth realms renounce the British monarchy, there is a high possibility that other member nations will gradually lose interest in the group. As the new head of the Commonwealth, King Charles must work hard to restore the faith of member nations of the Commonwealth, address the long-held grievances of former British colonies, and make his role in the Commonwealth meaningful, not just ceremonial.
The British crown can expect more scrutiny as it moves beyond the Elizabethan era. The new king must be prepared for an uphill struggle.