[Oren Gruenbaum is the editor of the section Commonwealth Update in the Round Table Journal. This article appears in the Opinion section of the current edition of the Journal. Opinion pieces do not reflect the position of the Round Table Board.]
When future historians plot a timeline of the Commonwealth’s latter-day troubles, a major turning point is likely to be the decision of Queen Elizabeth to ambush the heads of government at the London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) with a request that her eldest son, Prince Charles, succeed her as head of the organisation, though the position is not hereditary nor indeed within her gift. At the opening ceremony, she said: “It is my sincere wish that the Commonwealth…will decide that one day the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949.”
The succession to the position of Head of the Commonwealth has been a longstanding issue with the title being inserted into the Queen’s accession proclamation in 1952 but never formalised as a process after that, as indicated in The Round Table’s documenting of the events at the time.
The British Broadcasting Corporation’s diplomatic correspondent acknowledged that, for many, ‘the British monarchy provides the Commonwealth with a vital element of continuity and shared institutional memory that is beyond politics.’ In the way of such quiet diplomatic processes, of course, this was the end of the process rather than the beginning. One Commonwealth source told the BBC: ‘There has been a co-ordinated push to make this happen. It was presented as a done deal.’ After going into conclave at Windsor for the CHOGM leaders’ retreat, there was a predictable outcome as it became clear that without any obvious frontrunners willing to put themselves forward against Charles, he would get the position on the nod as no one seemed willing to go up against the British monarch. The Maltese prime minister and Commonwealth chairman-in-office, Joseph Muscat, had been sounding out opinion among member states and anticipated the decision by declaring that the heads of government were ‘elated by the vigour’ of the prince’s participation in their affairs.
Not everyone was so enamoured with the idea. Writing in The Independent, Ruchira Sharma called it ‘blatant nepotism’. It was, she said, ‘at the very least tone-deaf and at worst downright offensive for the royal family to suggest Britain still has such a level of control over its former colonies…a partnership of equals is never what the Commonwealth was, and this is the final nail in our hope of achieving change any time soon.’
The leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, was more circumspect but he too criticised the choice of Charles, saying that it should be a rotating position among all 53 member states and they should choose who succeeded the Queen. “The Commonwealth ought to really get a chance to decide who its own head is in the future,” he said on ITV’s Peston on Sunday.
In his de facto acceptance speech, Charles focused on his ambition of ‘revitalising the Commonwealth’ but it is hard to see how a man of nearly 70, widely lampooned as being hopelessly out of touch with his fellow Britons, will be able to reinvigorate the organisation. Last year the British novelist Zöe Heller, writing in The New Yorker, called Charles a ‘deeply unpopular man’ adding that ‘both the conservative and the liberal press regularly refer to him as “a prat,” “a twit,” and “an idiot,” with no apparent fear of giving offense to their readership.’
An even more scathing profile came in Tom Bower’s new unauthorised biography, Rebel Prince, in which Charles is portrayed as ‘profligate and short-tempered, autocratic and selfish…cruel and contemptuous towards his former wife, Diana…emotionally cold to his siblings and sons, quick to take offence and slow to notice when he is causing it.’ While Bower is known for hatchet jobs in his biographies, if the heir to the throne, and now the head of the Commonwealth, is even half as bad as he comes across then the Commonwealth apparatchiks may well regret the supine response at CHOGM to Charles’s anointment as the Queen’s successor.
The ‘Black Spider’ memos published by The Guardian after a 10-year freedom of information battle show how he lobbied ministers over his various hobby-horses, such as alternative medicine, dry stone walls and badger culls. The letters showed that Charles saw no limits to his constitutional role and no conflict of interest in lobbying for his special interests. His attitudes, said Heller, ‘seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone…What unites his disparate positions is a general hostility to secularism, science, and the industrialised world.’ She concluded: ‘The severest damage to his reputation has come not from his modest history of vice but from his strenuous aspirations to virtue.’
A vignette in The Guardian of an encounter at CHOGM provides another depressing glimpse of how little Charles understands the organisation he has been bequeathed. ‘And where are you from?’ the prince asked Anita Sethi, one of the attendees at the Commonwealth People’s Forum. ‘“Manchester, UK,” I said. “Well, you don’t look like it!” he said, and laughed.’ Charles probably has more self-awareness than his father, Prince Philip, known for his decades of bigoted public remarks about almost every ethnicity.
However, as this CHOGM presumably showed Charles trying his hardest to make a good impression, it seems likely that there will be a tinge of his father’s tradition of xenophobic insults – comments made with so little fear of reproach that they are only heard from the insufferably privileged. An orderly succession of one Windsor by another offers a salve to those who fear for Britain’s inevitably diminished role in the world after Brexit.
But maybe it doesn’t really matter who is the head of the Commonwealth; many of those in member states are unaware of who holds the role now. A 2010 poll conducted by the Royal Commonwealth Society in seven countries found that only half of people polled knew the Queen was the incumbent. A quarter of Jamaicans thought it was Barack Obama and one in 10 Indians thought it was Kofi Annan. Some people even thought it was the U2 singer Bono. Corbyn’s call for the position to rotate was the most popular response, given by more than a third of those questioned – twice as many as thought Charles should inherit the role. ‘There is significant debate about whether this role should be passed on to the next British monarch when the time comes,’ the RCS report said. ‘Many people are vehemently opposed to the idea, declaring that, if the Commonwealth is ever to shake off its colonial past, then such a move would be unconscionable…The allocation of this role will send a powerful message about the identity of the Commonwealth today.’
Danny Sriskandarajah, then head of the RCS, said in 2009: “Monarchy can obscure what the modern Commonwealth represents.” Unfortunately for the organisation, and its attempts to repurpose itself for the 21st century, it can also sometimes reveal what the modern Commonwealth really represents.