Regrouping 56 countries representing more than 2.5 billion people, the Commonwealth’s future is uncertain as King Charles III faces the challenging task of keeping the organisation together.
When Charles III became king of the United Kingdom, he also assumed leadership of the Commonwealth. The post is not hereditary, but the organisation’s heads of state and government had already designated him as successor during the London summit in 2018, acceding to a request from Queen Elizabeth II.
After ascending the throne, Charles III became the third leader of the organisation since its creation in 1949, following George VI and Elizabeth II. The role is largely symbolic and it falls to the sovereign to represent the 56 countries that currently belong to the Commonwealth. The United Kingdom is represented by the British Prime Minister.
Despite the limited sphere of action, the challenge for Charles III is still enormous, as historian Martin Farr points out:
“One of the central questions in the British monarchy over the last 30, 40 years was whether the support it had, both in the UK and internationally, was due to Queen Elizabeth II personally or to the institution. There were fears that when her reign was over, there would be a revival of republicanism.“
The Republican trend started when Elizabeth II was still on the throne. On November 30, 2021, Barbados officially became a republic and Sandra Mason became the first president in the history of the country, which has been independent since 1966.
The transition from a constitutional monarchy to a republic did not change Barbados’ status in the Commonwealth, as the nation retained its place among the 56 countries that belong to the organisation.
It has however reduced the number of countries that retain the British sovereign as head of state to 15, including the UK itself. Martin Farr believes that number will continue to fall:
“A dramatic decrease in that number is inevitable. Australia will soon hold a second referendum, New Zealand will also put the question to a referendum. In Canada, there is less pressure for that to happen but I suspect that countries like Jamaica will become a republic soon. It is inevitable that countries will become republics while continuing to be part of the Commonwealth.“
Former French colonies seek to join
The Commonwealth family grew in 2022 with the entry of Togo and Gabon, two former French colonies. There are now four countries in the organisation without any historical connection to the British Empire. Mozambique (the first to join, in 1995) and Rwanda are the others. Others are waiting for their chance.
Martin Farr believes that the future of the organisation depends on its ability to become a “free association of countries, some with historical links, others not” and to cut ties with the colonial past.
He recalled that there is still hostility towards the United Kingdom in some countries but that the Commonwealth is still an “excellent soft power tool for London to promote British values and attract visitors to the UK.”
In this particular regard, Martin Farr says that Queen Elizabeth II was the greatest asset the country ever had in terms of soft power and that Charles III will struggle to have the same impact, not only because he has less time but also because there is a lot of work ahead of him in the wake of Brexit.
Ironically, Martin Farr stresses that the more pronounced the King’s role in leading the Commonwealth, the more difficult it will be to separate the institution from its past, thereby limiting its growth.
The King with an opinion
The dark past of the British monarchy may haunt the future of the Commonwealth, but Charles III does not seem willing to condemn it to oblivion. Quite the contrary.
Before taking the throne, he spoke out against “the most painful period in the country’s history” and deeply regretted the “suffering of so many people” in reference to the British Empire’s slave-owning past. It was at the 2022 Commonwealth Summit in Rwanda, that he also said the time had come to have this conversation.
Charles III is now King and tradition dictates that the British monarch has no say in or involvement in public affairs. For Martin Farr, the problem is that Charles III’s opinions have been well-known for well over the 50 years that he prepared to assume the throne, “as he had no royal responsibilities, he became an activist”.
For the time being, the United Kingdom has not yet made any apology for the role played in slavery, but the door is open. The King’s positions are well known and Buckingham has already promised to investigate the British royal house’s involvement in the slave trade.