The Queen summed up this year’s Commonwealth theme – Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming – in her Commonwealth Day message. The Queen, whom many see as the glue who has held the modern Commonwealth together in good and bad times, said in her annual message that “this connectivity means….that wherever we live, our choices and actions affect the well-being of people and communities far away”.
In a year which started with raging bush fires in one Commonwealth nation and moved on to focus on the impact of climate change on small territories and the new unwelcomed connectivity caused by COVI-19, the Commonwealth’s message has sought to capture the global zeitgeist.
In a period also when young people have made a collective impact on the global narrative on issues especially on climate change, the 54-nation Commonwealth (over 60% of the Commonwealth’s combined populations are under 30) played once again to its advantage of youth during the annual Commonwealth Service on 9 March.
The grey clouds, cold weather and COVID-19 scare stories made no impact on the large crowds gathered in front of Westminster Abbey from lunchtime, well before guests arrived for the Monday afternoon service. A group of Cameroon protestors tried to storm the Abbey, leading to two arrests. The Journal du Cameroun.com later described them as two pro Ambazonians “who turned out to protest against what they termed the Commonwealth’s hypocrisy in the treatment of the English-speaking regions of Cameroon”. However, this year’s level of protests was small in comparison with the 2019 Brexit and counter-Brexit demonstrations which took place on every spare patch of pavement and grass between the Abbey, the Palace of Westminster and surrounding areas.
Harry and Meghan
The cheers of the schoolchildren, who make up the mainstay of the Westminster Abbey congregation on Commonwealth Day, when Prince Harry and his wife, the Duchess of Sussex, walked to their seats did not go unnoticed. The celebrity performers also stayed long beyond the close of the ceremony to chat with the couple who were on their last major official royal engagement before moving to a less formal role.
The American media has followed every twist and turn of the tale of the couple’s plans to seek an independent financial life. The New York Post’s celebrity gossip website, Page Six, called the UK visit by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex their UK “farewell tour”, playing to their near celebrity rock status.
Social media reflected the post-ceremony encounters between Prince Harry or the Duchess of Sussex with boxer Anthony Joshua and singer Craig David, in between their engaging with wide-eyed children.
In the spirit of connectivity, the Queen had also made sure the soon-to-be-ex-royal couple joined her in church the day before.
The future royal bonds are not totally broken. The Palace has made it clear that there will be a review of the couple’s status in 12 months’ time. For now, Prince Harry will step down as the Commonwealth Youth Ambassador, a position he was given in 2018. In the meantime, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will remain President and Vice President, respectively, of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) – a charity organisation supporting youth empowerment in Commonwealth countries. During Commonwealth Week, the Trust showcased a recent meeting the Duke and Duchess held at Buckingham Palace with young leaders from the QCT network to discuss mental health, equal opportunities and youth leadership. On its website, the Trust describes its role as to “champion, fund and connect young leaders who are working hard to change the world”.
An aspirational theme ran through the heart of most of the readings and performances at the Commonwealth Day Service. The London-born poet Darryll Suliaman Amoako, known as Suli Breaks, who left his work as a lawyer to become a performance poet, delivered a message around the idea of pursuing a dream. His reflection, which took in Google and skyscrapers, stated that it takes “one idea to change the world”. It caused many in the Abbey’s young school parties to stop fidgeting and start taking stock.
British X-Factor star Alexandra Burke sang “Ain’t no mountain high enough” and unified heavy weight boxing champion, Anthony Joshua, spoke the beneficial relationship fostered by the “respect for Commonwealth cousins”.
The messages on aspiration and connectivity were promoted by all. President of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Lord Howell, spoke in his message about the “value of this great network”.
Commonwealth Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland also delivered a collaborative message in her Commonwealth Day statement. She said: “Respect and understanding based on goodwill raise awareness in the Commonwealth of the particular needs of vulnerable, remote and marginalised communities, wherever they are and whatever their needs.”
In the House of Commons, a Monday night debate on the Commonwealth also featured some of the aspirations of British MPs for closer post-Brexit Commonwealth ties.
Next stop: Rwanda
With the next Commonwealth landmark date being the 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in June, the next Commonwealth chair-in-office, Rwanda, talked on Commonwealth Day about its preparations. The Kigali Convention Centre had been lit in the colours of the Commonwealth flag on Commonwealth Day and the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said that Rwf20.1 billion (US$220,438) had been allocated for preparatory activities ahead of CHOGM.
State Minister for East African Community in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Olivier Nduhungirehe, told the New Times in Rwanda that his country, the second member state without any direct colonial ties to Britain to be admitted into the Commonwealth after Mozambique, valued its membership.
He said: “It’s an important international organization; there are not only values and principles in this organization, but also other measures that ease exchange of human capital and trade within member states.”
The Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey on the BBC (includes Round Table’s Debbie Ransome)
The House of Commons debate the Commonwealth on Commonwealth Day