Commonwealth of Nations
The evolution of the Commonwealth of Nations and Brexit are both symptoms of Britain seeking to transition away from its Imperial past to a new future. Our late Queen devoted much of her time to strengthening the Commonwealth.
Brexiters still believe that Britain can retain some of the wealth, glory and power of our Imperial past by staying stubbornly independent in a world where nations must unite to address world issues. During King Charles III’s reign, there will be further changes in world institutions. Can Commonwealth and Monarchy survive together beyond his reign?
The British Commonwealth of Nations was originally established by the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference. Most of the member states were ex-British Empire colonies. After World War II, the London Declaration of 1949 dropped the word British and modernised the Commonwealth as a group of “free and equal partners” but with the British Head of State as Head of the Commonwealth. From her accession to the throne, our late Queen has overseen the independence of some former colonies and the growth of Commonwealth “soft power” activities such as this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and regular, informal Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.
Treaty of Rome
In 1951 the Treaty of Paris established the European Steel and Coal Community leading to the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community in 1957. Prime Minister Anthony Eden was concerned that Britain would become economically isolated and considered inviting Scandinavian and some other European nations to join the Commonwealth. But the damage to Britain’s reputation caused by the Suez crisis killed that idea. Subsequent amendments to the Treaty of Rome paved the way for completing the single market and the European Union.
Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth
Over her seven decades as our Queen, Elisabeth travelled many thousands of miles to visit most of the 54 member states, one-third of which were to Canada, Australia and New Zealand (in that order). She has also regularly hosted members’ Heads of State to strengthen the links of this unique network of independent nations. It is unique in that it does not have a fixed, organisational structure like the European Union and other trade and finance bodies. It now has 56 members with Rwanda joining in 2009, Barbados deciding to leave in 2021 and the most recent recruits are Gabon and Togo this year, both countries that were not British colonies. 14 of its members still recognised the Queen as their Head of State. 36 are Republicans and five have their own monarchy.
The Commonwealth featured centrally in the events starting the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations recently. See more at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlsabnj6Mj0
The Problem for the Future
The position of the Head of the Commonwealth does not automatically go to the successor of our monarch, However, with respect for the huge role our Queen played in forging relationships between member states, the Heads of State agreed in 2018 that Charles should succeed her in that position. But, despite the changes, the Commonwealth still represents a post-Imperial structure that no nation wants to return to. The nature of the relationship between members needs to be entirely redefined. This must start with a final break from any vestiges of the British Empire and, specifically, an apology for its colonial history of slavery.
Hopefully, Charles has learned from the precedence his mother set by reaching out to the Maori nation to form a personal relationship with Queen Te Atairangikaahu, whom she treated as a peer.
During their Caribbean tour earlier this year our new Prince and Princess of Wales, William and Kate, witnessed the increasing will of islands such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbuda, Antigua and the nation of Belize to leave the Commonwealth. Even Australia and New Zealand do not see it as part of their long-term destiny.
The Commonwealth soft power
Can the Commonwealth continue to reform itself to become a soft power network to seek solutions to global issues that formal political bodies have difficulty uniting on? If so, it might act as a parallel democracy and conscience for the US and EU political superpowers in their struggle to resist the advance of autocracies. The British monarchy has been one of the most successful in learning to adapt and survive. King Charles III’s well-known passion for world problems may come to the fore by continuing to provide a central focus for the Commonwealth so that both it and the Monarchy can survive together.
If not, will the British monarchy be forced to take a lesser role on the world stage and follow the course and cycle paths of their cousins in Europe?