The Queen travelled tens of thousands of miles to reach far-flung corners of the Commonwealth, and often spoke of her pride at what the group of nations had achieved – but can the organisation continue to exist after her death?
Wednesday 14 September 2022 20:33, UK
Few would argue that the Queen was a tireless advocate and supporter of the Commonwealth.
In her seven decades on the throne, she visited all but a tiny handful of the group’s 54 countries, undertaking thousands of hours of gruelling travel to reach its many far-flung places.
She attended almost all the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and spent hundreds of hours entertaining heads of state from around the globe in order to keep up the links necessary to ensure a body like the Commonwealth can continue to exist.
But, in the wake of her death, there will be some who will ask if it can survive in its current form – or even if it should.
What is the Commonwealth of Nations?
The origin of the Commonwealth goes back to the British Empire, which at one point covered a quarter of the world’s land surface, and which subjugated millions of people for the benefit of relatively few.
Over time, as people in many of the empire’s dominions became increasingly self-reliant, there was a push for growing autonomy. The 1926 Balfour Declaration created the British Commonwealth, stating that all the dominions were designated autonomous communities. At the time, all the member countries had the UK’s monarch as head of state.
India, the empire’s most populous dominion and considered the jewel in its crown, wanted to become a republic and, following partition from Pakistan, gained full independence in 1947, with its own head of state, as did Pakistan.
In 1949, the London Declaration established a new form of relationship for the UK’s former colonies, with the word “British” being removed from the Commonwealth’s name and membership being based not on allegiance to the Crown but one in which member states would recognise the monarch as Head of the Commonwealth.
A slew of other former colonial territories gained independence in the following decades, many choosing to follow India in becoming republics, but still keen to retain links to Britain by being part of the Commonwealth. Some, however, retained the Queen as monarch.
Currently, 14 Commonwealth “realms” have the Queen as head of state, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but also some in the Caribbean. Most of the republics are in Africa.
Today, the Commonwealth says it is “a voluntary association of 56 independent and equal countries” whose “governments have agreed to shared goals like development, democracy and peace” and, as such, allows countries to join that were not part of the former empire.
The most recent recruits, in 2022, were Gabon and Togo, neither of which had a “historic association with the Commonwealth, with both gaining independence from France in the 1960s”.
In 2009, Rwanda, a former Belgian colony that has been independent since 1962, made the decision to join in the aftermath of its appalling genocide in 1994.
Every two years, except during the COVID period, prime ministers and presidents of member countries come together to discuss shared issues at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM).
Every four years, athletes from Commonwealth countries around the world come together to take part in the Commonwealth Games to underscore the links between the nations involved, as they did in Birmingham in 2022.
What was the Queen’s role?
The Royal Family, possibly in a reflection of how the Queen viewed it and her role in it, describes the Commonwealth on its website as “a remarkable international organisation”.
She was head of the Commonwealth, having replaced her father George VI when he died.
While it was a symbolic role, her presence at CHOGM summits and her meetings with heads of state helped cement the bonds between the member countries, in what many agree is a loose grouping, without the fixed institutional structure of other organisations like the EU, or other trade bodies.
One third of her total overseas visits were to Commonwealth countries and other members of the Royal Family have also been active in maintaining the ties.
During her life, she spoke several times of her pride at what the Commonwealth achieved.
In 2018, the organisation agreed that Prince Charles would take over the role of head when the Queen died – something that was not automatic, even though the Queen had taken over the role from her father.
Charles has visited many of the same countries as his mother and has spoken of how he was “deeply touched” to be named her successor.
More than 200 trips to Commonwealth nations
The only Commonwealth countries the Queen did not visit were Rwanda, which only joined just over 10 years ago, and Cameroon.
Before her reign, she visited Lesotho, which at the time was called Basutoland, and Eswatini, which at the time was called Swaziland, in 1947.
Some trips involved her travelling tens of thousands of miles, often through rough terrain, meeting thousands of people from many diverse communities.
At the time she took the throne, the Commonwealth consisted of just eight countries – with many more still under colonial control.
Now, the 56 Commonwealth countries contain two billion people, a quarter of the world’s population.
Her earliest overseas visits reflect the ties that the UK government wanted to strengthen at the time and that pattern continued throughout, although the monarch could also visit in response to an invitation.
Just five years before she ascended following her father’s death, she had said on a visit to South Africa on her 21st birthday: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.”
She went on to undertake more than 200 visits to Commonwealth countries, several of which were multiple repeat visits.
Many of those visits provided some of the most colourful moments of her reign, with the variety and often flamboyance of the cultures she witnessed on her visits providing a contrast to the occasionally staid formality of the ceremonies she often took part in back home.
And while the number of visits decreased as she became older, her enthusiasm appeared undimmed.
In 2020, on Commonwealth Day, she said: “On Commonwealth occasions, it is always inspiring to be reminded of the diversity of the people and countries that make up our worldwide family…
“Such a blend of traditions serves to make us stronger, individually and collectively, by providing the ingredients needed for social, political and economic resilience…
“Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to see and hear how membership of the Commonwealth family means so much to those living in all parts of the world…
“Advances in technology and modern media have now enabled many more people to witness and enjoy – with remarkable immediacy – this experience of Commonwealth connection…
“Looking to the future, this connectivity means we are also aware, perhaps as never before, that wherever we live, our choices and actions affect the wellbeing of people and communities living far away, and in very different circumstances…
“It is encouraging to see how the countries of the Commonwealth continue to devise new ways of working together to achieve prosperity, whilst protecting our planet.”
Signs of trouble ahead emerged in 2021 when, in the wake of the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests, some Caribbean countries became more assertive in their assessment of the role of the monarchy in their constitutional systems.
The first to eject the Queen as head of state was Barbados, which became a republic late in that year.
Many in other Caribbean countries had already expressed dissent that they were effectively ruled, if only symbolically, from London, in a hangover from the colonial era.
It occurred at a time of growing calls for reparations to make up for hundreds of years during which Britain effectively turned a blind eye to, or even supported, the system that allowed many Britons to build up huge wealth, literally on the backs of enslaved Africans.
During a trouble-hit visit to the region by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in March 2022, Prince William signalled that any decision by Jamaica, Belize or the Bahamas to break away from the British monarchy and become republics would be supported with “pride and respect” by the UK.
Despite this, angry voices, reflecting on generations of inequality between Commonwealth countries and their former colonial rulers, continued to question the existing system.
Many even questioned whether the Commonwealth was appropriate in the modern day and age.
Some academics have even asked whether the Commonwealth – despite its call for human rights to be at the core of what member states are expected to uphold – works against the interests of countries in the so-called Global South, because of the way those rights and humanitarian values tend to be defined and established by the West.
In the days after her death, a growing chorus of people in Australia have said that Charles’ accession should provide an opportunity to reconsider his place as head of state. For now, the relatively new prime minister Anthony Albanese has ruled out a referendum in his first term.
The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda has also followed Jamaica in promising a referendum on becoming a republic in the relatively near future.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she expects the Pacific nation will eventually become a republic, but the country will not be taking measures to do so in the short-term.
Experts on the Commonwealth say that, despite the pressures on it and claims that it is becoming irrelevant, or even harmful, it has a lot to offer that is likely to mean it will persist – even with the so far much less popular Charles as its head.
Out of the academics who study international relations Sky News spoke to, all believed it would continue to exist after the Queen’s death, but they were split over what it would look like, and who might lead it into the future.
Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations, at SOAS London University, says having a member of the Royal Family as head in the future is not assured.
She told Sky News: “The Commonwealth has to deal with a central tension within it: On the one hand, people find its spaces useful for discussion and coordination; on the other, all its members are keenly aware that it represents something in the past that nobody wants to return to, namely an imperial structure.
“As we’ve seen in the Caribbean, people are more and more keen to get away from that history and then forge their own futures – they might want to do that in conversation with each other, which means that there’s still a space for the kind of talking shop that the Commonwealth has become. But they may want to entirely redefine the nature of that relationship.
“Obviously, the Queen was the monarch during the time of empire so there’s been a lot of continuity. The idea that the Commonwealth would have chosen another head during her lifetime would be unthinkable.
“In her passing, that question is open. And I think that will give rise to thinking about a different kind of organisation if it indeed survives. It’s not at all clear to me that the next head of the Commonwealth would be a member of the British Royal Family.”
‘Tough act to follow’
But the Head of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Sue Onslow, told Sky News she still sees a place for the royals in the future.
The question is how the organisation will change after the Queen – and whether it still has a place in the modern world.
“The accusation that the Commonwealth is simply Empire 2.0 is fundamentally wrong,” she said.
“It’s a soft power organisation which may seem irrelevant in today’s brutal geopolitics. But, actually, soft power organisations have a resilience, a flexibility and an informality which can provide policy space to help resolve world issues.”
Ms Onslow noted that the Commonwealth has carried out a parallel democracy that has focused on such issues as climate change or the respect for human rights.
She stressed, however, that it needs to reform.
“It is at a crossroads at the moment.
“Its future will continue to evolve, but in which direction?
“There’s a waiting list of countries that want to join the Commonwealth, so it is likely to change as the links with the former colonial relationship will change.”
A massive change will be with Charles taking over an organisation that the Queen as championed since 1952 and which has been her preferred international body.
“Prince Charles has championed causes which are close to the Commonwealth heart – sustainability and the environment, climate change, young people – and has done a good job representing his mother at Commonwealth summits.
“But Queen Elizabeth will be a tough act to follow.
“Also, the links which helped to bind the Commonwealth together in the mid-20th century – sentimental, legal, education, trade and investment, etc – have all weakened.
“Although there have been regular rumblings about whether the Commonwealth, as a modern organisation, should do away with the British monarch as ceremonial head, actually, there are a number of plusses: the Commonwealth gets free publicity, the Queen/Charles provides free hospitality and the Royal Diplomacy and Information Network. Also, what would be the alternative?
“But without a doubt, without the Queen, it will be different.”