The Queen at Windsor Castle and members of the royal family, clergy in BBC Commonwealth day commemoration programme

Commonwealth Day 2020 had been one of the last big public events held in the UK before the Covid pandemic shut down life as we all knew it.

The royal family’s divisions had started to show at the 2020 event but the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth and the person credited with keeping the 54-nation organisation on track, managed to keep family frictions away from the events of last year’s Commonwealth Day.

A year on, and the divisions in the royal family drew global attention as Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, agreed to an interview with the queen of the American chat show, Oprah Winfrey, to air their “side” of the story. The programme was broadcast in America by the CBS network on the eve of the day usually put aside to celebrate the Commonwealth and the enduring power of the Commonwealth family.

The annual celebration of the Commonwealth did take place, despite the focus of global headlines being on Harry and Meghan. On Sunday, a diverse and socially-distanced recorded series of appearances at Westminster Abbey put across the message of the power of the Commonwealth to pull together.

In fact, the virtual nature of the 7 March BBC broadcast, called A Celebration for Commonwealth Day, had its advantages. What is usually the bringing together of the Commonwealth’s diversity at Westminster Abbey became a celebration of the Commonwealth’s diversity in situ. The powerful performance of the New Zealand Youth Choir filmed against a beautiful local landscape did more to bring the spirit of that country to viewers than any performance on a cold Monday in London. The inter-faith prayers which ended the one-hour broadcast also had more power by being delivered by the leaders of the Commonwealth’s many faiths from their parts of the world.

At the top of the BBC broadcast was a pre-recorded message from the Queen. Her message focused on the Commonwealth’s ability to deal with “testing times”. The Queen spoke of the opportunity to “reflect on a time like no other”. In her message, she said that: “Whilst experiences of the last year have been different across the Commonwealth, stirring examples of courage, commitment and selfless dedication to duty have been demonstrated in every Commonwealth nation and territory, notably by those working on the front line who have been delivering health care and other public services in their communities.”

For the rest of the BBC programme, filmed in separate sessions at Westminster Abbey, musical performances matched Bob Marley to a bhangra beat and included recorded interviews with senior royals talking about their work with the Commonwealth.

In a separate message to mark Commonwealth Day, Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland also focused on the resilience of the Commonwealth during the coronavirus pandemic. She also pointed out that Commonwealth Day was on the same date as International Women’s Day – a focus for many of the Commonwealth Day events planned by the Commonwealth Secretariat. Baroness Scotland said: “I know that despite our challenges, the bonds of our Commonwealth family are just as real, strong and vibrant as they ever were and just as strong as the many women who have risen to meet the challenges of the pandemic….and just as powerful.”

Monarchy and the Commonwealth

The BBC Sunday programme did not get the mark of approval from a panel of academics gathered by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) for a Commonwealth Day discussion on Empire into Commonwealth: The Past, Present and Future role of Britain’s royal family in a global context.

Panellists held up the Queen’s personal commitment to the Commonwealth since her 1952 vows. The Director of the London Centre for Public History and Heritage, Dr Anna Whitelock, said that the severing of this very personal tie would “not be a good thing for the Commonwealth”. Panellists also questioned the move to pass the Head of the Commonwealth role on to Prince Charles. Contributors criticised the “London lens” through which the Commonwealth had been seen in the BBC celebration. One panellist said that the Queen alone understood the Commonwealth, even when her government and her family failed to. They discussed the clash of the worlds of Hollywood celebrity and royal “charisma” underpinning the Harry and Meghan story. Panellists pointed out that the Oprah interview had given oxygen to those critical of monarchy and had fuelled the argument for republicanism in places such as the Caribbean. Associate Professor in Caribbean History at the Institute of the Americas, University College London, Dr Kate Quinn, said that the link between monarchy and the Commonwealth exposed its weaknesses rather than its strengths. Citing plans by Barbados to look at republicanism, Dr Quinn said that Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley had quoted independence leader Errol Barrow warning Barbados against “loitering on colonial premises” for too long. She said that, if the Commonwealth was to move with the tide of history, it was important to review “royalty loitering on Commonwealth property”.

Harry and Meghan

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their much-publicised interview with Oprah Winfrey had threatened to upstage Commonwealth Day for weeks. By Monday it was clear that the global headlines were all about Harry and Meghan, with few media mentions of Commonwealth Day. Their allegations about lack of support, racism and animosity in royal circles dominated global media headlines and engulfed social media. The main headlines dealt with the Duchess being prevented from getting help when she felt suicidal, questions about the colour of her then yet-to-be-born son’s skin and Prince Harry being worried about a repeat of the media circus which led to his mother’s death.

The full interview was broadcast on Britain’s Independent Television (ITV) on Monday night. Harry and Meghan’s answers to the forensic questions from Oprah Winfrey provided context to the clips and headlines which had dominated the news for the previous week.

The media feeding frenzy over Harry and Meghan seemed set to run for some time on both sides of the Atlantic. During Commonwealth Week, CNN announced plans to launch CNN Royal News, billed as ‘a weekly newsletter bringing you the inside track on the British royal family, what they are up to in public and what’s happening behind palace walls’.

The road to CHOGM  

Away from the media headlines, Commonwealth circles continued to look to the next big outing – the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda in June. CHOGM 2021 organisers, Rwanda, tweeted a Happy Commonwealth Day message to the organisation’s 54 member states and stated that Kigali was looking forward to welcoming #CHOGM2021 delegates to the June summit in Kigali.

A number of events geared to the joined-up messages of Commonwealth Day and International Women’s Day (IWD) also took place. These included an article about gender equality by Secretary-General Patricia Scotland and her appearance in Kenya to receive a gender equality award.

The many events around the 2021 Commonwealth Day and Week had been intended to shine the spotlight on the Commonwealth with special messages linked to gender equality and the theme of delivering a Commonwealth future. As the media headlines rumbled beyond 8 March, the focus remained on royalty and only tangentially its connection with the Commonwealth.