The death of Queen Elizabeth II this week brought the reign of Britain’s longest-serving monarch to a close. Tributes have poured in for the 96-year-old queen from around the world, but her death has also thrust the Commonwealth into the spotlight.
King Charles III succeeds his mother as head of the Commonwealth, a group of 56 independent nations comprising more than 2.5 billion people that has its roots in the British Empire.
Established as a vehicle for economic and geopolitical partnership, most of the Commonwealth nations were formerly under British rule. The Royal Family’s website describes the Commonwealth as “a remarkable organization which remains a major force for change in the world today.”
In an opinion piece for the National Post earlier this year, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney described how Canada and other Commonwealth nations worked to implement economic, political and social sanctions on apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. He also described tensions with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the Commonwealth leaders’ strategy.
“Throughout all of it, Her Majesty was a constant and positive force,” he wrote. “In fact, success would never have been achieved without the discreet, gentle and persuasive leadership of Her Majesty The Queen.”
“A voluntary association, the modern Commonwealth is open to any country, including those that do not have strong historic or linguistic links to the U.K.”
Mulroney described the abolition of apartheid and establishment of majority rule in South Africa as “a signal moment in the life of the Commonwealth.”
South Africa, which had been forced to withdraw from the Commonwealth in 1961, was readmitted in 1994.
A voluntary association, the modern Commonwealth is open to any country, including those that do not have strong historic or linguistic links to the U.K. The most recent additions to the group, for example, are Francophone nations Gabon and Togo, which joined the Commonwealth in 2022. Former Portuguese colony Mozambique is also a member.
Among the Commonwealth nations, 14, in addition to the U.K., are “Commonwealth Realms” that recognize the British monarch as their head of state. These include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Jamaica.
Rumblings of republicanism, however, continue to reverberate in corners of the Commonwealth. Australian politician Adam Bandt, for example, renewed his calls for Australia to become a republic this week.
“Rest In Peace Queen Elizabeth II. Our thoughts are with her family and all who loved her,” he tweeted Thursday. “Now Australia must move forward. We need Treaty with First Nations people, and we need to become a Republic.”
In a 1999 referendum some 55% of voters in Australia voted against becoming a republic, a move that would have replaced the queen and governor general with a president. But, clearly, the topic has not gone away.
Earlier this year, the issue of republicanism made headlines during a royal tour of the Caribbean to mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee. In an awkward televised meeting with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the royal couple of his desire for the country to become a republic. Jamaica, he explained, is “moving on” and wants to fulfill its “true ambitions as an independent, developed, prosperous country.”
Tours, particularly of Commonwealth nations, are standard practice for members of the Royal Family, but this one was widely regarded as a P.R. disaster. From the couple greeting throngs of children through a wire fence in Trench Town (a scene that looked to many like “a white savior parody” according to the BBC) to a military Land Rover ride reminiscent of the colonial era, the optics were poor.
“Earlier this year, the issue of republicanism made headlines during a royal tour of the Caribbean to mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee. ”
It appeared at times as if the royal couple were caught uneasily between two eras — the imperial twilight of the post-colonial world and 2022, with all its talk of reckoning and reparations.
In a speech, Prince William spoke about his “profound sorry” over slavery, which he described as abhorrent and “forever stains our history.”
But will the death of Queen Elizabeth II mark an end with the old order for some Commonwealth nations?
Francine McKenzie, a history professor at Canada’s Western University and expert in Commonwealth affairs, says there have been ebbs and flows in republican sentiment for a long time, citing Australia as a good example.
“The motion to become a republic was defeated, but there is still significant support for a republican political system,” she added. “The queen’s death probably will, and certainly should, prompt reflection among the constitutional monarchies.”
As for the future, McKenzie notes that the Commonwealth has long included republican countries, starting with India which created a republican political system shortly after it won its independence in 1947. Over 30 of the countries in the Commonwealth are republics, she added.
“The importance of the monarchy to the Commonwealth association has been shifting for a long time, although the queen until her death, and now King Charles, remain head of the organization,” she added. “A change in political system (from, say, a constitutional monarchy as Canada, Australia and Britain have) need not weaken the Commonwealth.”
The historian points to the wide range of issues that the Commonwealth is engaged in, such as climate change, supporting small states, engaging youth, and promoting democracy and trade.
“Nonetheless, the Commonwealth will have to continue to show its relevance to its members,” she added.