God save the Commonwealth:
Could it survive the Queen's death?

DI AYA SAADI

31/10/2022

Following Queen Elizabeth’s death and some Commonwealth members’ expressed desire to jettison the Monarchy, the debate reignited about the function and the future of this political association. Will this be the breaking point of the Commonwealth, or will King Charles III be able to hold what’s left of it together? What are the countries requesting from the British Monarchy? Let’s examine the current situation and what may happen in the next few years.

What is the Commonwealth?


The Commonwealth of Nations, which normally is simply referred to as the Commonwealth, is currently a voluntary association of 56 member states scattered all across the world, formed in 1926.

Fifteen of these countries still recognize the British monarch as their own head of state, and the vast majority of the members were once part of the British Empire, with exceptions made for Mozambique (1995), Rwanda (2009), Gabon (2022), and Togo (2022), former Belgian, Portuguese and French colonies.

To be accepted, each applicant country should be able to demonstrate its commitment to democracy, protection of freedom of expression, human rights and so forth. The Commonwealth aims to amplify the voice of smaller nations, to provide a potential framework for resolving disputes and bring a trade advantage.


Why is it problematic?


Despite having all these goals, The Commonwealth’s sustainability has been problematic because of:

  1. Economic issues: the tangible benefits that its citizens derive from this organization are unclear, Britain’s economy worsened in the last few years, Brexit was a major mistake and various donors have withdrawn or withheld funding bringing a slash in the secretariat’s budget.

  2. Historic legacy: the Commonwealth is rooted in a dark legacy of colonialism, slave trade, racism and genocides, an example being the brutal 1950s crushing of Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion or the huge diamonds that were stolen from South Africa and India and transferred to the British royal family, which were never returned despite calls to do so. This legacy though has made the royal family extremely rich.

  3. Political and Social issues: the association has been increasingly important, mainly for the United Kingdom, in order to remain a key player on the International stage after leaving the EU, and for the West to have a way to engage with Africa. On the other hand, more and more countries within the Commonwealth are becoming disappointed in their relationship with British royalty over their lack of accountability, such as Barbados' decision to cut ties with the Monarchy following a wave of protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Which countries are contemplating leaving, and why are they waking up only now?


Queen Elizabeth II devoted most of her reign to foster amicable relations with the countries which used to be a part of the British Empire. The former Monarch took her duties seriously, be it respecting local customs, visiting each country or going against the advice of the establishment when it came to issues in the continent. She was also one of the longest reigning monarchs, becoming a symbol of continuity and commonality all across the Commonwealth.

Now, King Charles III may have inherited his mother’s throne, but definitely not the respect or the diplomatic qualities she had. Instead, his accession brought back to light calls from politicians and activists alike for former colonies to not keep the monarch as head of state and for Britain to pay slavery reparations.

This already happened in the past, bringing the United Kingdom in 2013 to compensate over 5,000 Kenyans who had suffered abuse from British soldiers during the Mau Mau revolt. It is surprising that the amount that former British colonies owe is $45 Trillion, which is still an underestimation. This is one of the several reasons why, in some countries, the Royal tours haven’t been welcomed by the general population and have been accused of being reminiscent of colonial days. Caribbean nations, after the Queen’s death and Barbados becoming a republic last year, have been reconsidering their future with the Royal family. A few are already putting together plans in order to break away from it.

Some countries:

  • Have already declared their desire to hold a referendum to become a Republic, such as  Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

  • Are actively considering a change such as The Bahamas, Belize, Granada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia

  • Will not change for now, generally countries where the legacy of slave trade is less salient, as in the cases of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

Commonwealth countries see renouncing to Charles III as their Head of State as an opportunity to recognize the legacy of colonialism and slavery, elect their head of state independently, oversee domestic and foreign affairs, and claim their self-determination. It could also be seen as a symbolic move to finally unlink from the former empire that enslaved, tortured and made money out of their ancestors. Experts, such as Professor Philip Murphy, said that this awareness was being driven by things such as ‘the BLM Movement, the Windrush scandal and the growing momentum behind the move for reparations for slavery and colonialism’.


Conclusion


With awareness growing in former British colonies regarding the imperial historic legacy and the loss of the Queen’s persona, which was regarded as a symbol, tackling the past and its meaning has become more urgent. It is hard to say if substantial change will happen in the next few years, but for now we can only see that something is moving since various countries are becoming self-aware of their past losses, asking for what has been taken from them, be it statues, diamonds or human lives.

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