top of page

A Right Royal Ontological Dilemma: How the Commonwealth Keeps the Crown Relevant in a World Without Empires

Updated: Jan 2


In 2022, His Majesty King Charles III ascended the British throne, but he became king of 15 independent countries at the same moment. He also became the leader of the Commonwealth and now guides the organisation’s 56 member states consisting of 2.5 billion citizens (The Commonwealth, 2023). At various points, the British Empire ruled 56 separate states and was infamously brutal in its ruling mechanisms, which begs the question: how has the British Crown maintained any semblance of authority over a community of states that have been so damaged by it in the past?


This Juncture Review will examine the origins of the Commonwealth, the tolerance of the British monarchy amongst the members, and the organisation’s prospects. With the passing of  Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, approval ratings of the monarchy have declined mildly in the UK, with net positivity ratings down to +21 in March 2023 from +29 in March 2022 (Ipsos, 2023). Commonwealth realms are questioning the authority of a once imperial Crown, and the rise of populism on a global scale threatens to devalue IGOs like the Commonwealth.


Can the Commonwealth remain relevant in the future? And, can the British sovereign expect such prominence on the world stage? The collapse of history’s largest empire birthed a community that seeks to protect the environment, promote democracy, and liberalise trade equally for all member states (The Commonwealth, 2023). How has the latter replaced the former, and can the organisation promote democracy if its leader is appointed by birthright?


 


Origins of the Commonwealth

The first semblance of a Commonwealth came in 1867 when Canada was designated a Dominion of the British Empire as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario fused into a single entity. Canada was followed in 1901 by Australia, in 1907 by New Zealand, and 1910 by South Africa (Oxford Reference, 2023). Following the 1926 Imperial Conference, the Dominions and the metropole, the UK, agreed they were equal members of the British Empire under the Crown’s authority.


India’s declaration of independence in 1947 ushered in the modern age of the Commonwealth. Membership no longer depended on respect for regal authority, and the 1949 London Declaration permitted republics and new monarchies that were former British colonies to join the Commonwealth. Indeed, since then, Rwanda and Mozambique have joined the Commonwealth alongside 54 other states despite not being former British colonies (The Commonwealth, 2023).


Evidently, the Commonwealth was once a mechanism of imperial control. It was the inner circle of special-status colonies attempting to accumulate a greater degree of power beneath the ultimate authority of the Crown. Decentralisation of power from the metropole also offered a greater degree of colonial efficiency for the Empire. The absolute influence of the British and French Empires eroded in the interwar period, and the new prevalence of Americanised democratism challenged the legitimacy of imperialism. This new age necessitated a restructuring of the British Empire in two ways.


Firstly, governance of a more globally interconnected era could only be managed through regional authority hubs. If the British Empire were to remain powerful in the early 20th century when great powers in Europe, North America, and Asia were jostling for geopolitical influence, decision-making could not solely be London’s responsibility. Relying on regional powers like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to project influence on behalf of the empire semi-autonomously allowed the Crown to maintain global authority without undermining strategic efficiency throughout the world wars.


Secondly, by 1945, imperialism had become an unacceptable political ideology. Anti-imperialist sentiment had grown after Nazi and Japanese expansionism throughout WWII, and the US was leading the movement. The slew of independence movements within the British Empire over the following years was hard to resist simply because of Washington's pressure on London. The reformed Commonwealth Realms were the compromise; the British monarch remained sovereign over the 15 realms, but each state was responsible for its government.


Despite liberal reform, the Empire was never formally abolished, and 14 British Overseas Territories remain today (only 11 permanently inhabited) (Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, 2023). They largely govern themselves, but foreign policy/relations, security, defence, and good governance are firmly Westminster’s responsibility. A particularly famous example is the 1982 Falklands Conflict, where the British military defended the Falkland Islands Overseas Territory from Argentine forces.


Surprisingly, the adage ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ is accurate. While the term ‘Overseas Territory’ may legitimise London’s authority over these territories in a way ‘Colonies’ does not, they function as colonies and unquestionably represent the remnants of the British Empire. They are represented in international conferences and communities through the UK and, as shown, have limited governmental autonomy. However, it is difficult to argue that these territories should be awarded autonomy despite modern pro-democratic, anti-imperialist Westernism.


In truth, the British Overseas Territories enjoy as much democratic freedom as the four constituent administrations of the UK. In 2013, Falklanders participated in a two-day referendum to vote on the question ‘Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?’, to which 1,672 citizens voted in favour and three voted against. The islands' governor referred to the value of self-determination as a right in the United Nations. He confirmed the referendum was a “clear expression of the people’s self-determination” (BBC News, 2013), wholly legitimising London’s relationship with its Overseas Territories.


The British Empire has transformed from a colonial hegemon to a democratic community, a fraction of the size. London governs by consent, legitimising its authority over its territories, and the Crown has successfully remained relevant in an age where monarchism has become outdated. Ceremonially, the British monarch presides over their Realms, but the arbitrariness of this role is exemplified through the total independence each Realm (aside from the UK) enjoys.


 

Purpose and Tolerance

The Commonwealth is a unique group of states which, upon practical analysis, may not seem to share so much in common. They vary greatly in landmass, population, GDP, military capacity, geography, language, culture, and other identifying features. However, aside from new members Mozambique and Rwanda, the Commonwealth countries are former colonies of the British Empire and now new members of a political community still headed by the British Crown.


Despite ascending the throne in 2022, in 2018, King Charles (then Charles, Prince of Wales) was named successor to his mother as the Head of the Commonwealth upon agreement from the Commonwealth Heads of Government (The Commonwealth, 2023). The British monarch is not hereditarily assured presidency over the Commonwealth, but it has been a consistently accepted job perk since King George VI became its first Head in 1949.


The admission of Mozambique and Rwanda to the Commonwealth surprised the international community, with Mozambique joining in 1995 and Rwanda in 2009 (The Commonwealth, 2023). Both states were among the few African countries that avoided British colonialist rule (Rwanda was under German and Belgian rule, and Mozambique was under Portuguese rule). Therefore, their desire for membership suggests more benefits for the member-states than simply the community.


The Commonwealth aims to:

·         Protect small states from vulnerability within the international community. They may be particularly susceptible to increasing climate volatility, economic fragility, and exploitation from larger states. The Commonwealth community treats all member-states equally, allowing small states to benefit from the security offered by fellow states.


·         Address cultural issues that challenge young people. Specifically, the Commonwealth website identifies youth empowerment and gender equality as pressing matters.


·         Protect the environment and tackle climate change. This is particularly important to King Charles, who has been campaigning for greater climate action for over 50 years. The four richest Commonwealth nations, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all emit higher than average per capita tonnage of CO2 emissions per annum. Australia leads here, producing 14.99 tons per person per year, only a fraction ahead of Canada at 14.25. They are in the top 13 emitters in the world (Tiseo, 2023).


·         Promote democracy, law, and government. Since the empire's decline, anti-imperialist sentiment has been at the core of the Commonwealth principles. By installing democratic regimes, authoritarian rule and human rights abuses are safeguarded against, allowing the Commonwealth to function as a political community with common goals.


·         Boost interstate trade and economic growth. While the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc, it does offer support for its members to develop its export capabilities, making it more competitive for global trade. In addition, promoting positive interstate relations creates more opportunities for Commonwealth countries to negotiate and consider trade deals, including for the often ignored smaller states previously mentioned.

 

The Commonwealth’s principles are difficult to fault as each is centred around good governance, prosperity, and equality. This is far from the British Empire’s most memorable characteristics, which are remembered for their brutality and oppression. However, the key difference between the Commonwealth and the Empire is equality. While the Dominions eventually gained equal status to the UK beneath the Crown, they were part of the ultra-exclusive group of favourite states. Their preferable treatment perhaps explains why the former Dominions, aside from South Africa and the Republic of Ireland, remain Commonwealth Realms today, the group of 14 states that recognise the sovereignty of His Majesty The King.


The 14 Realms are:

·         Antigua and Barbuda


·         Australia


·         Bahamas


·         Belize


·         Canada


·         Grenada


·         Jamaica


·         New Zealand


·         Papua New Guinea


·         Saint Kitts and Nevis


·         Saint Lucia


·         Saint Vincent and the Grenadines


·         Solomon Islands


·         Tuvalu

 

There is a split between countries above that continue to accept the monarch and those that are now beginning to challenge their authority, albeit ceremonial. Barbados became a republic in 2021, causing six other Caribbean Realms to signal their intention to remove the monarch as sovereign. These countries include Belize, Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis, some of which are calling for an apology from the Crown (Yang, 2022) for imperial atrocities.


Yet this is an almost exclusively Caribbean republican movement. One of the UK’s closest allies and historical partners, Canada, is staunchly in favour of the monarchy. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement declaring, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, we affirm our loyalty to Canada’s new King, His Majesty King Charles III, and offer him our full support” (Trudeau, 2022). Similar declarations of fealty were echoed in Australia and New Zealand. At the same time, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness expressed regret at the passing of Her Late Majesty, congratulated the King, and then formed a constitutional reform committee to oversee Jamaica’s transition to a republic (Chappell, 2023).


There is a noticeable racialised split between support and disapproval of the monarchy throughout the Realms. The Caribbean states, which are majority black countries, are the most critical of the Crown’s authority. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are majority white countries with vastly larger economies and geopolitical influence. Predictably, this can be traced back to the British Empire.


Africans first arrived in the Caribbean when Spanish imperialists enslaved them and transported them to the islands for forced labour. Between 1623 and 1655, the British took over imperial control of the islands and continued to use slave labour for cotton picking, construction and other forced laborious tasks. Many of the enslaved people in the Caribbean were sold to slavers in the US throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, dividing families and worsening the already dire living conditions for the slaves (Chappell, 2023).


Most white countries had a much less destructive relationship with the metropole. While indigenous peoples were often mistreated by settlers, white descendants in the Realms can often be traced to British colonisers who were employed or sponsored by Westminster and given a level of political control over the lands they acquired on behalf of the Empire. It is clear why Caribbeans are far more reluctant to support the Crown than Westernised states and why many have demanded apologies from the monarchy rather than pledged loyalty.



Image 1: A Map of the British Empire. The Washington Post, 2015.



Image 2: A Map of the Commonwealth. University of Birmingham, 2023.


The member states greatly appreciate the principles of the Commonwealth, but the symbolism of the Crown is deeply disturbing to many former colonies that suffered beneath it. This suggests that, much like India and the other republican Commonwealth countries, some of the Realms will transition to a wholly constitutionally independent state with no formal connection to the Crown.


This is not necessarily damaging to the Commonwealth but might endanger the legitimacy of the British monarch serving as Head of the Commonwealth. Even today, the overwhelming majority of Commonwealth states reject the Crown’s authority in government, so the question of Commonwealth royalty is likely to follow as republican sentiment grows. The monarch serves in a ceremonial capacity in government. Still, as Head of the Commonwealth, the monarch has a very real influence over the organisation's actions, potentially jeopardising the democratic integrity of the Commonwealth leadership.


 

Looking forwards

The Commonwealth is an exceptionally successful, increasingly popular international organisation that encourages the implementation of positive government models across the globe. In addition, it promotes individual liberty and protects human rights but stops short of engaging in politically aggressive actions. Unlike IGOs like the UN, trade groups like the EU, or strategic alliances like NATO, the Commonwealth does not get involved in internal affairs within states. It avoids sanctioning, attacking, or condemning as a single entity.


For example, the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 was a legally tenuous decision by Reagan to remove the Grenadian regime and install a pro-US democratic government. Grenada is a Commonwealth Realm, meaning the US (despite apologising to Thatcher behind the scenes) was invading Queen Elizabeth II’s sovereign territory (Swift, 2023). The lack of Commonwealth reaction or support for Grenada against a non-Commonwealth state acting under legally questionable circumstances exemplifies the strategic redundancy of the organisation.


This is not to say it is a powerless institution or its aims are unachievable. Its morally grounded principles are globally inspirational, attracting non-UK former colonies. Given this new movement, it is likely that the Commonwealth will continue to grow and attract a diverse group of member states. This is a significant strength as it encourages cultural recognition and tolerance within the Commonwealth community, working to repair discriminatory damages done throughout the colonial period.


Given its continued growth, there are two possible developments the Commonwealth might undergo. Firstly, it may continue to grow and incorporate more members of the international community, both former colonies and not. Providing current members unanimously agree to admit a new member, there are no special criteria a state must meet to join the institution. If the Commonwealth continues to grow this way, the legitimacy of regal authority over the organisation may face greater criticism.


This is because, as more non-former colonies join the Commonwealth, the link between the British Crown and its members becomes more fragile. For example, should smaller states across South America join the Commonwealth, it is doubtful that they would accept His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales as his father’s presumptive successor as Head of the Commonwealth.


In addition, Commonwealth identity would undergo a significant transformation for this trend to continue. Although being a community of former colonies does not officially form part of the Commonwealth’s identity, its history stems from the imperial Dominions and their transition to Realms within a wider political community. The shared histories and identity between Commonwealth nations cement the equality principle as all nations, aside from the UK, suffered under the Crown to different extents during the imperial age.


The admission of new states which lack this identity dilutes the value of equality through experience. Albeit unrelated to the British Empire, Mozambique and Rwanda have a colonial history and can identify with the trauma of other Commonwealth nations. In doing so, they undergo a process of ontological restoration; that is, their national identity transitions from a victim of empire to an equal member of a relevant community.


Alternatively, if the Commonwealth doesn’t continue to grow, it may become a quasi-ornamental token of the British Empire in a world that no longer tolerates national supremacism. The rise of populism in recent years has presented a grave threat to globalist institutions. As an institution with limited global influence due to its reservedness in international affairs, populists would view membership of the Commonwealth as a pointless exercise. British populists might criticise imperialists for attempting to cling to any form of empire. In contrast, foreign populists might question the purpose of being a member of an international community that groups members with little, other than empire, in common.


However, it is worth considering the potential for the Commonwealth to transform into something more than a simple community. Since the 2000s, geopolitical hierarchies have been drastically transformed. To crudely summarise the causes of this transformation, the standout points include the collapse of the Western ‘global police force’ in the Middle East, the Global Financial Crisis damaging the Western economic reputation, Brexit and the undermining of Western-centric globalism with the rise of populism, the restoration of Russia as a critical Eastern power, and the growing conflict between the biggest Western and Eastern powers, the US and China (Baru, 2023).


Despite the vast array of matters these events cover, they all highlight that the era of Western dominance is finally coming to a close for the first time since the Roman Empire. This is not to say the East will dominate from now on, but London, Washington and Paris can’t call the shots as they have done for centuries.


In a period of such drastic geopolitical uncertainty, institutions like the Commonwealth may have underrepresented value. Britain has had the military support of the Commonwealth Realms in both World Wars. In WWII, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand joined the war once the UK declared war on Germany in 1939 despite being mostly independent Dominions. The UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand maintain an exceptionally similar parliamentary model of government and hold core cultural similarities with one another to a greater extent than other international partners.


One interpretation of the four-way partnership is ‘CANZUK’, proposed by CANZUK International (standing for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom) (CANZUK International, 2023). The ultimate goal of CANZUK International is to promote closer ties between the CANZUK countries, promoting freedom of movement, free trade, foreign policy cooperation, and civil liberties. CANZUK International is currently a lobbying group with limited international attention and facing a new uphill battle as populism grows worldwide. Given the British reaction to EU membership, it is presently difficult to imagine a willingness to join CANZUK given the greater amalgamation of statehood it proposes, but also the difficulty of promoting trade and travel between countries so far apart.


Whether CANZUK is merely a fantasy or the next step in Anglophonic relations, the four nations have long been close military allies, and it is a safe bet that their shared values, political ideology and royal allegiances count for something in the face of global threats in Eastern Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and other global regions. It is difficult to determine whether this can be extended to the rest of the Commonwealth. Still, given the growing resentment towards the Crown in some of the Realms, it is unlikely that the Caribbean is too concerned with committing itself to the defence of King and country.


Realistically, then, unless the Commonwealth constitution becomes more militarily focused or adapts to the changing geopolitical environment, there is a chance that it will become an imperial antique, with its biggest achievement being the quadrennial Commonwealth Games. With King Charles pledging to ‘modernise the monarchy’, we must ask what this means for the Commonwealth. Can the Commonwealth be fully modernised if a King or Queen rules it? And, if the King is to remain president of the Commonwealth, what might His Majesty do to protect its relevance without imperialising it? The King’s term as Head of the Commonwealth will reveal these answers in time.


 

Conclusion

The Commonwealth is a prestigious international community that promotes morally inspiring principles relating to governance, development and humanity. This ties in sympathetically with the constant philanthropic efforts of the Royal Family and, more importantly, is a total contrast to the behaviour of the Crown during the British Empire and the political condition of the Commonwealth countries before independence.


Its history is rooted in imperialism, and its members shared a victimhood of the British Crown. Nonetheless, they continue to respect the authority of the Crown as Head of the Commonwealth, but this is more politically acceptable now each state is independent of Westminster. The British Empire still exists in a limited capacity, but the states in the Commonwealth are independent and democratically choose to be members of the community.


Given this, the Commonwealth is not a reincarnation, continuation, or preservation of the British Empire. It has a history which connects directly to the decline of the Empire. Still, above all, it is a community of states with a shared identity and an opportunity for the UK to promote good principles of governance and liberty throughout the Commonwealth in an attempt to repair the damage done through colonialism.


The Commonwealth may become a bloc of some sort, perhaps through the leadership of the King. This might promote free trade, freedom of movement, or military coordination. However, as populism takes the world by storm and the West begins to lose its global hegemony, it is doubtful that a globalist campaign within the Commonwealth is on the horizon. And if it is, it might not be the British monarch to oversee it if more non-British former colonies become Commonwealth members.


The Commonwealth is facing an ontological dilemma. It must adapt to survive, and surviving involves avoiding becoming an ornament of the British Empire. To do so, the Crown’s role within the community must be clearly defined, and the extent of its role directly determines whether the Commonwealth will take the baton from the Empire.

 


List of References

Baru, S. (2023, January 26). Should Britain try and take the lead in the Commonwealth? Retrieved from Institute of Commonwealth Studies: https://commonwealth.sas.ac.uk/blog/should-britain-try-and-take-lead-commonwealth.


BBC News. (2013, March 12). Falkland referendum: Voters choose to remain UK territory. Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21750909.


CANZUK International. (2023). CANZUK International. Retrieved from CANZUK International: https://www.canzukinternational.com/.


Chappell, K. (2023, April 26). Jamaica cool on Charles' coronation as it eyes break with monarchy. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/jamaica-cool-charles-coronation-it-eyes-break-with-monarchy-2023-04-26/.


Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK. (2023, December 27). UK Overseas Territories. Retrieved from Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK: https://www.uk-cpa.org/where-we-work/uk-overseas-territories/.


Ipsos. (2023, March 29). IPSOS UK - Attitudes towards the Royal Family. Retrieved from Ipsos: https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/royal-familys-favourability-rating-drops.


Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. (n.d.). 1867 - The Dominion of Canada is Created on July 1. Retrieved from Legislative Assembly of British Columbia: https://www.leg.bc.ca/dyl/Pages/1867-Dominion-of-Canada-Created-July-1.aspx#:~:text=1867%20%2D%20The%20Dominion%20of%20Canada%20is%20Created%20on%20July%201&text=%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B,Canada%20on%20July%201%2C%201867.



Swift, J. (2023, Novemeber 21). U.S. invasion of Grenada. Retrieved from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/U-S-invasion-of-Grenada.


The Commonwealth. (2023, 12 26). Member countries. Retrieved from The Commonwealth: https://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries.


Tiseo, I. (2023, December 7). Per capita carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in 2022, by country. Retrieved from Statista: https://www.statista.com/statistics/270508/co2-emissions-per-capita-by-country/.


Trudeau, J. (2022, September 10). Statement by the Prime Minister on the proclamation of the accession of His Majesty King Charles III. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Government of Canada.


Yang, M. (2022, April 28). Why Do Caribbean Countries Want to Leave the Monarchy Now? Retrieved from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/28/caribbean-monarchy-queen-republic-reparations-jamaica-belize-protest/#cookie_message_anchor.

 

39 views0 comments

Commentaires


bottom of page