is the commonwealth crumbling?

is the commonwealth crumbling?

The Commonwealth, an organization inherited from the British Empire, very dear to Queen Elizabeth, is shaken by the upheavals of the Black Lives Matter movement. What will happen when Charles becomes king?

This is the great affair of his reign and of his life. Since her coronation, Queen Elizabeth has worked tirelessly for the Commonwealth. She was only 21 when on an official visit to South Africa, with her father King George VI, she made this promise:

“My whole life, whether long or short, will be devoted to your service and to the service of the Imperial Commonwealth to which we belong.”

In 70 years of reign, the Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, accompanied the decolonization of the former British Empire and knew how to maintain the unity of this unique organization in the world. But at the time of Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee, the British monarchy is going through a delicate transition period.

The recent official trip of Kate and William, heckled in the Caribbean is proof of this. Prince William has been called on to apologize for Britain’s slavery past. Demonstrations and attempts to cut the cord have overshadowed the beautiful images generally marking the couple’s movements.

These countries are indeed re-examining their colonial past, which is intimately linked to their history with the British monarchy. What will happen to the Commonwealth when the Queen, who refers to the organization as a “family”, is gone?

• What is the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth is an international organization, born in 1931, which has its origins in the vast British Empire and testifies to the way in which Great Britain restructured its empire in the years 1920-1930.

“Initially, it was an imperial institution, which brought together the autonomous colonies, such as Canada, Australia, South Africa, called ‘dominions'”, recalls Virginie Roiron, lecturer at Science Po Strasbourg in British civilization, Commonwealth specialist.

The “Commonwealth of Nations”, in its current form, was shaped by the independence of India in 1947. The country, which then became a “dominion”, wished to become a Republic, questioning its link to the British crown. . Another status was therefore found in 1949, to allow the country to remain in the Commonwealth. Later, in the 1960s, independence followed, particularly in Africa.

“Most of the States have chosen to become Republics, but to remain within this Commonwealth group, which has de facto become an international organization”, explains Virginie Roiron.

Queen Elizabeth on an official visit to the New Hebrides in February 1974.
Queen Elizabeth, on an official visit to the New Hebrides, in February 1974. © AFP

The Commonwealth today brings together 54 countries which are divided into two groups. Among them, the Commonwealth realms continue to recognize the Queen of England as head of state. These countries, 15 in number, include Australia and New Zealand, Canada, as well as small Caribbean countries, such as Jamaica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Grenada, the Bahamas, Belize…

Other members of the Commonwealth – republics or monarchies that have another monarch at their head such as Lesotho or Malaysia – only recognize Elizabeth as head of the Commonwealth. Included in the list are countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Cyprus or Barbados – all recently upgraded from Commonwealth Kingdom status to Commonwealth Country.

“(The Queen) has been the driving force behind building a single family of nations spanning all continents, all major religions and a third of the world’s population,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons. Communes in September 2015, saluting the role of the sovereign in the construction of the Commonwealth.

• What is this Commonwealth for?

The function of the queen is purely symbolic and the ties that unite these countries quite informal. They have in common the language, certain norms such as driving on the left (with the exception of Canada), the practice of cricket or even the legal system (common law). But these countries are in no way dependent on the United Kingdom, and no trade or customs agreement governs them.

“The Commonwealth is not a supra-state organization, and each country is very attached to its sovereignty”, notes Virginie Roiron.

One can then wonder what is the use of being part of it. If the Commonwealth did not constitute itself in a structured economic system, it offers to the member countries, and in particular to the small States, a diplomatic platform. Being a member “allows them to have a voice on the international scene”, sums up the specialist. Development and cooperation programs also strengthen the bond between member countries.

“The Commonwealth is an extremely singular international organization, which despite its lack of power, weight or even relevance as an international organization remains a whole which retains a certain coherence”, underlines Virginie Roiron. “It is based on informal relations not only at the level of States, but also of civil societies, that is what gives it its strength.”

• Is it threatened?

If some countries question the British crown, “no country wants to leave the commonwealth, as an international organization”, assures the academic. On the contrary, several countries have joined the organization in recent years, including countries that are not former British colonies, as is the case of Rwanda. The Gambia, which had left in 2013, refusing the injunctions of Great Britain on the subject of human rights, reinstated it in 2018, like the Maldives. Zimbabwe is still a candidate to rejoin it after leaving in 2003.

On the other hand, a republican feeling is spreading within the countries which still have the Queen as Head of State, in the wake of the movement Black Lives Matter. Becoming a republic within the Commonwealth today has a completely different meaning than in 1992, when Mauritius, the last state to return to a republic before Barbados, made this decision.

Kate and William’s recent trip to the Caribbean shows that the colonial past and slavery are at the heart of current claims. The princely couple was thus welcomed in Kingston, Jamaica by demonstrators demanding an apology from the monarchy for its role in slavery.

In the Bahamas, the National Reparations Committee says the British Royal Family benefited from the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of slaves, calling for reparations after colonized territories and peoples were ‘plundered’ for centuries .

In Belize, they had to cancel a visit to a village, where they were not welcome. Finally, a series of controversial photos, of Cambridges greeting the population through a fence, finished tarnishing the image of the crown.

“What can pose a problem for the monarchy currently is the representation of this stage: the fact that the country becomes a republic to get rid of the last tinsel of colonialism”, analyzes Virginie Roiron, who adds: “It is not not a very good sign for the monarchy to be associated with colonialism.”

Kate and William on an official visit to Kingston, Jamaica, March 22, 2022.
Kate and William on an official visit to Kingston, Jamaica, March 22, 2022. © Ricardo Makyn – AFP

“It is for this reason that the monarchy welcomes this wave of republicanism with a smile. We have thus seen Charles who recognized the horror of slavery. William repeated it during his visit to the Caribbean”.

On the sidelines of the princely couple’s visit, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness considered his country’s transition to a republican regime “inevitable”, as Barbados did last November. According to the Jamaican Rastafarian poet and activist Mutabaruka, independence would change the way the people “see themselves”.

The Australians, consulted by a referendum in 1999, decided to remain a Commonwealth realm. “But there is a debate on this subject, which is not completely closed”, notes Virginie Roiron. “The future change of monarch risks reigniting this debate, particularly in Australia, and the recognition of Australia’s past, and its responsibility in the treatment of Aboriginal people”.

“The Commonwealth is not crumbling, but the last vestiges of the colonial past are crumbling, and this colonial past is associated with the monarchy”, underlines the specialist.

• Who will take over from Elizabeth II?

It is Prince Charles who will become head of the organization on the death of the queen, but this succession was by no means automatic. Charles did not inherit the office: his candidacy was accepted in 2018, after debates between the heads of government of the Commonwealth countries, with the support of the British government and intense lobbying by the queenaccording to the BBC.

But Charles will not have an easy task at the head of the Commonwealth. In Canada, where he was recently on an official visit, to meet the indigenous peoples, 65% of the population refuses the idea that Charles should become king and head of state of Canada, and 76% refuse to recognize Camilla as their queen, According to a recent survey by the Canadian Institute Angus Reid.

The more distant future is also uncertain, especially since the appointment of William as head of the Commonwealth is not a given. “What matters to me is not who the Commonwealth chooses to lead their family in the future,” Prince William said last March.

And if the Commonwealth and the perpetuation of the bonds forged during the imperial past are the work of Queen Elizabeth’s life, will this be the case for her descendants, who have never known the British Empire?

Magali Rangin

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