King Charles faces a delicate balancing act as head of the Commonwealth

King Charles faces a sensitive task ahead of his mother’s funeral, with leaders of the 56-nation Commonwealth weighing questions about the future of the organisation.

The Commonwealth has evolved and expanded since its creation from the ashes of the British Empire and is held in part by Queen Elizabeth II, who saw maintaining the organization as a central part of her role.

But King Charles comes to the throne and heads the Commonwealth at a time when critics say it has lost some of its sense of purpose, with Britain’s influence in the world on the wane and populist voices on the rise in some of the 14 members who have a British monarch as head of state.

While expressions of sympathy from Commonwealth nations have poured in following the Queen’s death, opinion is divided over what the organization stands for and what the role of a British hereditary monarch should be on a global platform in the 21st century.

“There’s this whole question of what it does for us,” said one African official who has dealt with the Commonwealth for years.

“It doesn’t help. It no longer provides scholarships. We are not sitting around discussing democracy in Zimbabwe. The only thing younger people watch is the Commonwealth Games,” he said.

Prince Charles is overseas for the lowering of the Royal Standard at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony to mark the birth of a new democracy in Barbados in November 2021

Prince Charles is overseas for the lowering of the Royal Standard at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony to mark the birth of a new democracy in Barbados in November 2021 © Toby Melville/PA

In order for King Charles to cement his role in the organization, the official added, he will need to spend time with its leaders, particularly those from smaller states such as Fiji or Lesotho, for whom the association helps amplify their voices. on the international stage.

“The Queen always seemed to deliver. If a chief was in town, it was either an official visit or he would have him for tea,” he said. “It remains to be seen how much priority King Charles will give it.”

Before his mother’s death, the then Prince of Wales told Commonwealth leaders he valued “the friendships we have built over the past 70 years and look forward to deepening them in the years ahead”.

When Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, the Commonwealth in its current form had only existed for three years. It brought the former nations of the British Empire together as London decolonised.

In the decades since, the organization has strengthened ties between member countries and offered practical diplomatic and financial support, from monitoring elections to promoting security cooperation.

Although the Queen was careful not to interfere in political matters in Britain, she occasionally used her influence on Commonwealth matters.

According to one of her biographers, Ben Pimlott, the Queen played an important role behind the scenes during the 1979 Commonwealth summit in Lusaka, bringing together Margaret Thatcher, then the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, with South African leaders. The meeting was a precursor to the Lancaster House Agreement which led to Rhodesia gaining independence as Zimbabwe.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica in March 2022 during their tour of the region

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica in March 2022 during their tour of the region © Chris Jackson/PA

Philip Murphy, Professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London, has also documented the Queen’s strong opposition to Britain’s trade with South Africa during the apartheid era. She is said to have been troubled by Thatcher’s hostility to sanctions in the 1980s.

“I don’t think anyone can command the respect that the Queen has done in the Commonwealth and beyond,” said Richard Uku, a former director of communications at the Commonwealth Secretariat and a citizen of Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago and Britain.

“(King Charles) has other interests, but I think he also has a deep understanding and appreciation of what his mother has put into the Commonwealth to sustain it,” she said.

In her final years, the Queen was determined that her heir should also succeed her as head of the Commonwealth, despite skepticism from some of her leaders who felt the role should change in the future. Charles gradually became more active within the organization and his succession was finally confirmed at the Queen’s request at a summit in 2018.

He takes on some of the ties that held the organization together, particularly in the Caribbean. In July, he told Commonwealth leaders in Rwanda that it was up to each member to decide whether to keep the monarch as head of state, adding that “arrangements like these can be changed, calmly and without rancor.”

Barbados last year elected to become a republic and, soon after, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made a difficult tour of the region, facing calls for reparations for slavery.

Fiji's team at the start of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July 2022

The Fijian team at the start of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July 2022 © Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

On Friday, the main article in one Jamaica Gazette he suggested that the Queen’s death the previous day would facilitate a “break with the monarchy”.

“Jamaica will go. That’s partly because people like Charles haven’t made the effort to nurture those relationships,” the former Commonwealth official said, noting that younger generations were more skeptical of the monarchy.

Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, was more hopeful. “I think the Queen saw the Commonwealth very much as her father’s legacy and was totally committed to it,” he told the BBC shortly after the Queen’s death.

“King Charles has also traveled very widely in the Commonwealth and I think it will be a priority for him to be out and about and renew links in his new capacity. . . he will bring his own touch to it,” he added.

The Queen, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and African leaders at the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Lusaka

The Queen, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and African leaders at the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Lusaka © Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

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