It did not take long after Queen Elizabeth II died for media speculation to begin about which Commonwealth states would be next to ditch the British royals as heads of state. Even though the organisation is a voluntary and equal association of independent nations, it was the successor to the British empire – and the Windsors have provided its first two heads – so it was perhaps inevitable that the British monarchy and the Commonwealth have become conflated.
Antigua and Barbuda was first to raise the constitutional question, with Gaston Browne, the prime minister, announcing just after Charles was declared head of state of the Caribbean island that it would hold a referendum on becoming a republic. ‘This is not an act of hostility,’ Browne told ITV News. ‘It is a final step to complete the circle of independence.’
The queen’s death has intensified scrutiny of evolving post-colonial ties. The process was accelerated when Barbados became a republic last year and after the ill-fated royal tour in March; Belize announced a constitutional review of the question in March. Channel 4, testing republican sentiment last week, found Jamaica also had ‘little appetite for keeping the British monarch’ as head of state. ‘This is a very relevant discussion within the Caribbean,’ Browne told the Times. ‘Countries are reflecting in terms of how soon they transition.’
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Yet in Australia, which nearly voted to become a republic in 1999, any prospect of imminent change was downplayed. The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, ruled out a referendum soon, despite appointing a minister for the republic on winning power in June. (As opposition leader, Albanese said the 1975 constitutional crisis, when his predecessor Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the governor-general, ‘reinforces the need for us to have an Australian head of state’.)
Speaking after her death, Albanese said his views were well known but added: ‘Now is not a time to talk about our system of government.’ In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, another avowedly republican premier, said she expected New Zealand’s royal ties to ‘deepen’ under King Charles III and ruled out any change while she was PM.
Elizabeth’s benign 70-year reign glossed over the problem of ‘reconciling a seemingly benevolent queen with the often-cruel legacy of the British empire,’ the New York Times said, adding that her death ‘accelerates a push to address the past more fully and strip away the vestiges of colonialism’. Writing as someone from the Caribbean living in Montreal – at the ‘crossroads of the Commonwealth’ – Nalini Mohabir called for reparations, insisting ‘debts need to be paid and apologists held accountable … imperial attitudes and monarchic institutions must be abolished for an alternative future to be born.’
Other commentators also condemned the monarchy for acting as a smokescreen during the last days of empire and as Britain became increasingly polarised. For the Harvard history professor Maya Jasanoff, the Commonwealth ‘put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval … [helping] obscure a bloody history of decolonisation.’ The columnist Nesrine Malik said the Queen was a ‘sanitising presence against a backdrop of wars, economic crises, Brexit and Covid… The near-deification of the queen intensified as the country pulled further apart.’ For Afua Hirsch, another columnist whose mother is Ghanaian, the queen was ‘the class system personified’ who gave a ‘stabilising sense of cultural continuity’, adding: ‘To lose that is to feel disrupted and uncertain … We know how it feels to lack cultural continuity. Others in Britain enjoyed it at our expense.’
From the archives:
“Devoted to your service” – 70 years of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth (2022)
The British Monarchy and the Modern Commonwealth (2022)
Long-lived Queen (2015)
For some, the Commonwealth itself must be jettisoned. Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede suggested Africans were less keen than their leaders on the Commonwealth, arguing ‘it is not apparent what tangible benefits they and their countries accrue’. Prof Philip Murphy said there could be a ‘rush for the door’ of the Commonwealth: ‘No one would notice if it disappeared tomorrow.’
One realm to go its own way may well be the queen’s beloved Scotland, with the uncertainty around the prospects for independence reflected in the Herald’s headline over a picture of Charles: ‘Union’s Saviour or Last King of Scotland?’
While her reign did give a glossy veneer to brutal colonial wars in Kenya and Malaya, she was also praised by Irish Republicans, once her sworn enemies, when she shook hands with the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and cemented the Good Friday Agreement that ended ‘the Troubles’ in her country’s oldest colony.
As Max Hastings wrote, ‘the fading of the Commonwealth pained the queen’. She devoted much of her life to it, and helped it to its greatest moment, when she backed 47 other Commonwealth leaders against her own prime minister after Margaret Thatcher blocked moves at the 1987 Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa.
Along with numerous other titles, the new king inherited his mother’s role as head of the Commonwealth (largely imposed on it at the London CHOGM, though it is not hereditary nor within her gift). He showed his enthusiasm by inviting Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth secretary-general, and high commissioners to Buckingham Palace a day after he was proclaimed king.
The Commonwealth could ‘serve as a natural vehicle for conversations about Britain’s colonial legacy and reparations’, suggested Amy Mackinnon in Foreign Policy. But it may be too closely tied to Charles, whose popularity will never match that of his mother. Even as he basked in the warm glow of goodwill from a mourning nation, news emerged that 100 loyal staff at Charles’s London home, Clarence House, face redundancy. And, amid growing hardship for many, he will not pay the 40% inheritance tax on the £652m ($750m) fortune he inherits, saving him £260m.
Many hate the institution of monarchy, yet have had respect and affection for Queen Elizabeth. She rose above the accident of her birth to become a rare unifying figure in factious times – someone regarded, by countless teary-eyed mourners on TV, as a surrogate grandmother to the nation. She may have been only the British constitution’s ‘dignified’ part but she did it well, following Walter Bagehot’s advice that ‘the greatest wisdom of a constitutional king [is] in well-considered inaction’.
As long as she was alive, many knotty issues were shelved; now she is dead, there will be much to reappraise. The Commonwealth must plot a new path and decide where its future lies. And Britain can begin to reconsider its own position in the world and perhaps shed its imperial nostalgia. As Jasanoff put it, ‘the British empire largely decolonised, but the monarchy did not.’
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.