What Next for the Commonwealth?

A difficult colonial history shared by 52 of the 56 current members of the Commonwealth was deftly obfuscated by pomp and circumstance. With the Queen’s passing, tensions may now bubble to the surface.

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Turning 21 on April 21, 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth in a broadcast from South Africa dedicated her life to the Commonwealth and Empire, declaring that her “whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”.

Four and a half years later, she was proclaimed queen and spent the first few decades of her reign watching that ‘imperial family’ shrink rapidly. In 1957, Ghana and Malaysia became the first colonies to seek independence after her accession; Britain’s last colony, Hong Kong, was returned to China in 1997.  In the intervening four decades, Empire crumbled, leaving only memories of the time when Britannia ruled the waves.

As Empire retreated, the Commonwealth was skilfully elevated as an important and cherished facet of the Queen’s public duty and Britain’s international role; simultaneously, a difficult colonial history shared by 52 of the 56 current members of the Commonwealth was deftly obfuscated by pomp and circumstance – and Elizabeth II’s unquestionable and unwavering commitment to the organisation. With the Queen’s passing, the tensions in that colonial history may now bubble to the surface.

Just as his mother spent the first years of her reign watching the land under the Crown shrink, Charles III will probably spend the next few years watching the whittling down of the Commonwealth Realms – that is, the members of the Commonwealth that have the British monarch as their head of state. Arguably, the exodus has been signalled, with Barbados choosing to become a republic in November last year: Prince Charles (as he was then) watched as the flag was brought down on his family’s 396-year rule of the island. Before that, the last country to renounce the monarchy was Mauritius in 1992.

However, earlier this year, Jamaica’s Prime Minister informed the then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their less-than-successful tour to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee that Jamaica would be ‘moving on’.

Following the Queen’s death, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda has stated that he will call for a referendum on retaining the monarchy in the next three years. A minister in the government of Belize is reported to have raised the issue in Parliament. Australia and New Zealand have sporadically engaged with this question for years. The new king is prepared for this: as he declared at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda earlier this year (where he was representing the Queen) “each member’s constitutional arrangement, as republic or monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country”.

Britain’s King Charles III speaks during the Accession Council ceremony at St James’s Palace, where he is formally proclaimed Britain’s new monarch, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, in London, Britain September 10, 2022. Photo: Jonathan Brady/Pool via Reuters

Whether or not the monarchy is seen as an anachronism by this subset of the Commonwealth, the organisation itself will probably come under some scrutiny. In any case, the Commonwealth today – though expanding – is an organisation in search of a role. Its modern incarnation has roots in the inter-war period, when dominions of the British Empire succeeded in gaining equality of status with Britain at the 1926 Imperial Conference, which declared all dominions to be “equal in status … though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”; this declaration was codified in the 1931 Statute of Westminster. India, though party to the 1926 talks, chose not to sign on to the declaration as it was pushing for full independence. When India joined in 1949, it was still nominally reigned over by King George VI (India would only officially become a republic on January 26, 1950) but it did so on the condition that the monarch, while head of the Commonwealth, was not head of state for India. This adaptation allowed more former colonies to join the organisation, which dropped ‘British’ from its name at the same time.

Purpose difficult to pinpoint

The name might have been easy to settle, but its purpose is more difficult to pinpoint. Originally an assembly of equals, the Commonwealth under Elizabeth II has evolved, adapted, and in some ways retreated even as it has admitted new members (Gabon and Togo joined this year). Its goals, broadly stated, are to promote democracy and trade, and, more recently, to protect the environment, champion young people and support smaller states. All perfectly worthy aims, but without any enforcement mechanism or budget to promote or support them. The only tangible deliverable is the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, which attract participation from countries outside the organisation as well. Perhaps the environment might become a focal point, given the preponderance of island members, but at present, there is not much that the Commonwealth measurably achieves: trade has never taken off, it no longer provides scholarships for young people, it has never managed to promote closer relations amongst its members, and its record on promoting democracy is mixed.

Arguably, the highwater mark of the Commonwealth was reached in the 1970s and 80s, when, with the Queen’s nudging, it helped Zimbabwe achieve independence with equality for the black majority, and with the strong stance it took against apartheid. On apartheid, the Queen took on Margaret Thatcher, then her prime minister, who did not share her monarch’s desire to maintain pressure on South Africa through comprehensive sanctions. According to Brian Mulroney, then prime minister of Canada, there were concerns that the Commonwealth could split on this issue, and he recalls the Queen’s efforts in steering the organisation intact through this crisis.

The Queen expended personal capital because she wished to do so. The question now is whether future leaders of the Commonwealth will have that personal capital to steer and shape an organisation that is relevant for the 21st century. It is worth noting that the heads of government of India and South Africa chose to stay away from the 2022 CHOGM in Rwanda, which the Queen did not attend. The venue itself is significant of change, for Rwanda (which joined in 2009) is one of four members that were not formerly colonised by Britain.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, play music during a visit to Trench Town Culture Yard Museum where Bob Marley used to live, in Kingston, Jamaica, March 22. Photo: Reuters: Chris Jackson/Pool

Change can be unsettling, and can expose weaknesses that have been papered over. The Commonwealth is riddled with vulnerabilities, which stem from two paradoxes at the heart of the organisation. The first is that while leadership of the Commonwealth has passed from the Queen’s father to the Queen to her son, there is no hereditary role for the monarch of the United Kingdom in this assembly of equals. The second is that though the organisation has its roots in Britain’s colonial history, that shared history is not allowed to be the basis for clubbing together because acknowledging Britain’s imperial past will eventually lead to discussions on reparatory justice for slavery and the expropriation of national wealth from the colonies. These are thorny questions that tact, administered with a good dose of British pomp and circumstance, along with deference to an ageing (and gracious, committed and charismatic) global figure had postponed. 

The question of reparations for slavery has already been raised in some Commonwealth Realms and other countries. Ten million Africans were taken across the Atlantic as slave labour for European-owned plantations on the Caribbean islands. When slavery was abolished by Britain in 1833, slave owners were compensated for the loss of their ‘property’ with the government borrowing £20 million in 1835 (£17 bn in today’s money). That loan was only paid off in 2015. The former slaves got nothing.

This history was revisited during the Black Lives Matter protests. The Royal tours of the Caribbean that were intended to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee earlier this year were a public relations disaster precisely because the Palace failed to read the recent mood music on race, on history and on culture. The exploitation of the colonies and the blood on which the edifices of London and other imperial cities are built cannot be glossed over anymore – and it would be naïve to assume that this collection of former colonies will not eventually voice that which has so far been politely left unsaid: they are the inheritors of loss. 

The winds of change are blowing. Later this year, a sculpture by Samson Kambalu will go up in Trafalgar Square – the heart of imperial London. It will feature Malawian freedom fighter John Chilembwe who towers over his white missionary friend, John Chorley, standing next to him on a plinth on the square. The figure of Chilembwe is at ease, and at five times the height of the other statues that adorn the remaining three plinths below Nelson’s statue, will look down at other Victorian colonialists who helped cement Empire. One of them is Sir Henry Havelock, the man celebrated in Britain for his role in quelling the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The irony is unmissable: already the bonds of Empire are being re-fashioned. The Commonwealth will not be immune to these currents of change: King Charles has his work cut out.

Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher who primarily focuses on security and politics in the Indian subcontinent, especially nuclear politics.