For two and half years since Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Malta in 2015, the British Government had been anxious to ensure that Prince Charles should succeed his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, as Head of the Commonwealth of Nations. Indeed, lobbying for agreement on such a succession was already in play before and during the Malta meeting, particularly as there had been rumblings in some Commonwealth countries that the headship should be rotated, and not remain a relic of the colonial past.
The succession is important to the British government for many reasons, not least that should Britain lose the Commonwealth headship it would be a blow to their standing internationally. Over the last two years, the issue became even more urgent for the British government as it touted the Commonwealth as a viable trade alternative to the European Union which a majority of its electorate chose, at a referendum, to leave.
Egg would have been all over the face of the government if the very group of countries it claims is the trade alternative to Europe, chose not to retain the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth.
For all these reasons, the British conservative government pulled out all the stops it could to ensure that Britain had every possible influence over the selection of The Queen’s successor as Commonwealth head. Pulling out the stops included ensuring, by every possible means, that a member of the British House of Lords became the Secretary-General of the Organisation’s Secretariat and that the British government took over, from the Secretariat, the management of the Heads of Government meeting held in London on 19 and 20 April.
As it turned out, the British government succeeded in their quest, having twisted and turned arms where they had to, wining and dining some leaders, and doing deals with others that mattered.
On 20 April, after being lavishly engaged by the British government, including by appearances of leading members of the Royal family, Commonwealth Heads of Government made the following statement from Her Majesty’s, Windsor Castle: “We recognise the role of The Queen in championing the Commonwealth and its peoples. The next Head of the Commonwealth shall be His Royal Highness Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales”.
This declaration, trailed the Queen’s publicly expressed wish at the Opening of the Heads’ Meeting, “that one day the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949”.
In reality, the Head of the Commonwealth has no functional role in the Commonwealth organisation but it is very doubtful that the modern Commonwealth would have survived had it not been for the personal role of the Queen. She has been the glue that kept the group in existence. Some background to this assertion is necessary for those who have not been students of the Commonwealth or participants in its activities.
In her long reign, the Queen has played a dynamic and crucial role in the now 53-nations Commonwealth. The former ‘British’ Commonwealth became simply “The Commonwealth” in 1949 when India decided to discard Dominion status and become a Republic. From that moment, the Commonwealth was no longer ‘British’, but a free association of independent states that accepted the guideline that the King (of Great Britain) would be the symbol of their association, and, “as such the Head of the Commonwealth”.
Three years later when the Queen unexpectedly succeeded her father at his untimely death, she seamlessly assumed the role of Head of the Commonwealth, even though there was no rule of hereditary entitlement. It is a role she has fulfilled for 66 of the modern Commonwealth’s 69 years.
She had made a commitment to the Commonwealth on her 21st birthday when she declared: “If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing – more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world”.
She has certainly lived-up to that declaration. Her devotion to the Commonwealth and its affairs, even to the point of defying the advice of British Prime Ministers in support of wider Commonwealth positions, is well-known and greatly respected. During her reign, the Queen has undertaken more than 200 visits to Commonwealth countries and visited every country of the Commonwealth (with the exception of Cameroon, which joined in 1995 and Rwanda which joined in 2009) as well as making many repeat visits. She has brought star quality to the Commonwealth and, by her association, given it global recognition and regard.
If nothing else, Commonwealth countries owed her the fulfillment of her wish that Prince Charles should succeed her as the Commonwealth’s head. How he will perform in the role is left to be seen. It is largely ceremonial, and that part will be easy. But, his mother made the Commonwealth a passion and she advocated it strongly, carrying along many British governments that, at times, regarded it as a nuisance.
Undoubtedly, successive British governments, labour and conservative, would have liked to be shed of the Commonwealth when African, Asian and Caribbean governments insisted on one-man, one vote; the end of a minority racist government in Southern Rhodesia; and the creation of an independent Zimbabwe. There were similar moments in the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa.
To be fair to Prince Charles, he never had a chance to prove his own commitment to the Commonwealth because it was so large a part of the Queen’s domain. But, he has demonstrated the right instincts on matters important to Commonwealth countries such as curbing climate change, ending racism and improving the lot of disadvantaged communities. He deserves a fair chance to continue his Mother’s role of championing the Commonwealth.
The bonus for Commonwealth governments is that they get the headship for free, along with the other facilities that the Royal family has made available including Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Rotating the headship would have meant paying for the post, providing a suitable office and home, staff, international travel, security and countless other amenities that now come with no invoice from the British Royal family.
While the British Royal family heads the Commonwealth, Britain has to remain part of the company and to stand-up for its causes and its people, including, as we saw recently, the “Windrush” generation in Britain whose rights, otherwise, might have been discarded.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own)