Future Of Commonwealth Brought Into Question Following Queen Elizabeth II’s Death

It seemed like the day would never come. September 8th, 2022 marked a salient moment in history in which the United Kingdom (UK) lost its longest-reigning monarch, leaving a nation in mourning. As a mark of respect, all pre-arranged events within the UK due to take place have been postponed, for after all, the Queen is dead. Occasions ranging from sports matches to parliamentary sessions, have all been duly pigeonholed, for another, less-historic time.

But as the nation mourns, not everyone is as sympathetic to the royal cause. Queen Elizabeth II’s death marks a watershed moment for the future of the Commonwealth, with a variety of member nations in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean asking whether the time has now come to not only bid farewell to Queen Elizabeth II, but to the British Royal Family as a whole.

When Queen Elizabeth II took to the throne back in 1952, aged just 25, more than a quarter of the world’s population lived at the behest of British rule. Parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands were colonised by Britain, leaving 700 million people living under the British Crown. Whilst the British Empire that oversaw it may no longer exist in its purest form, many instead argue that the creation and preservation of the Commonwealth simply represents its extension.

The reality remains, that for many, the British monarchy represents something far worse than royal paraphernalia. The British Crown, for those unfortunate enough to have lived under British rule, instead came to represent enslavement, violence, land theft, and destruction of communities. As a result, the perception of the British monarchy became significantly blighted. The institution’s fiercest critics assert that colonialism, class privilege, and economic inequality form the basis of what the monarchy represents, with many around the world now reassessing its role in light of the Queen’s death.

Moses Ochonu, a professor of African History at Vanderbilt University in the United States, staunchly opposes the Commonwealth. To him, the Queen’s death brought attention to “unfinished colonial business”. Scathing in his assessment of the British monarchy, he states that “there is a sense in which Britain has never fully accounted for its crimes”, thus clearly expressing contempt for an institution mired in colonial atrocities. Dr Ranjeet Baral, a doctor based in Kathmandu in Nepal, agrees with Ochonu’s claims, himself stating that “Britain must accept reality and not try to cling onto something which has lost its value and take the initiative and dispense of the Commonwealth with dignity”, arguing that the Commonwealth has long exceeded its sell-by date.

Malaysian politician Lee Boon Chye also said that his nation should “rethink their membership”, alluding to its colonial legacy as the deciding factor. Lee further states that “the Commonwealth is formed by the British Empire and former colonies with the British monarch as its head”, meaning that “its very existence is legitimising colonialism”. Can a monarch whose reign oversaw more than 20 Commonwealth countries gain independence, really have her tenure separated from colonialism? To many, Queen Elizabeth was simply the face of colonialism, a colonialism whereby “residual anger” still lingers over the brutal price many countries were forced to pay in exchange for independence.

Boer concentration camps in South Africa, the Amritsar massacre and the partition of India, the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, along with numerous famines across the Indian subcontinent, all point towards some of the most heinous crimes and atrocities committed in the name of the British Crown. Whilst Queen Elizabeth II neither headed the Empire at the time of all the aforementioned tragedies, nor is she personally responsible, the unfortunate truth remains that she represented the institution that inflicted unimaginable trauma on billions of people around the world. Victims of such anguish have often called for reparations as an apology for the horrendous crimes, such as for the enslavement of over 2 million Africans taken to plantations in the Caribbean. Even a spoken apology has been hard to come by with Queen Elizabeth herself, during a visit to India in 1997, publicly elucidating that “history cannot be rewritten”, referencing the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which hundreds of Indians were shot and killed by British troops.

Though proponents of the Commonwealth take a rather different view. Whilst not denying its obvious colonial links, its supporters argue that the group is held together through shared traditions, experiences, as well as economic interests. For some, the Commonwealth has moved on from being overtly colonial, as membership to the club is in no way contingent to recognising the British monarch as head of state. Of the 54 members of the Commonwealth, 36 are republics, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, whereas others, such as Brunei, Lesotho, Malaysia, Eswatini and Tonga, all have their own monarchs. Besides, nations don’t even require any ties to the British Empire to join. Gabon and Togo – two former French colonies in West Africa – joined the group in 2022, perhaps indicating the supposed economic and political benefits of joining the bloc.

Amitabh Mattoo, an expert in international relations based in Delhi, India, on the one hand believes that the Commonwealth “retains a niche relevance which has sustained it over time even after the decolonisation period of the British Empire”. He goes on to say that “we are living in the age of multilateral diplomacy, where states want a podium to express their views, advance their interests and shape global norms. With its diverse membership drawn from across the continents, the Commonwealth provides precisely such a forum”. Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, a constitutional lawyer from Sri Lanka, also believes the bloc is still relevant. She believes that the Commonwealth is a useful tool for advocating “democratic values and the rights of citizens over and above the realpolitik that generally dominates conversations between states”.

The internal divisions within the bloc are therefore clear, with calls to sever ties with the British Crown becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. In November last year, the Caribbean Island nation of Barbados became a republic, breaking decades of ties to the British Monarchy, highlighting that a precedent for departure has already been set.

As Charles III has taken the throne, he has promptly undertaken a tour of the UK, to Scotland, to Wales, and to Northern Ireland, in what is widely believed to be a purposeful bid to keep the Union intact. But will it be further afield that will turn out to be the British monarchy’s undoing? Whilst their position as monarchs is under no tangible threat, the murmurings of global dissent ultimately grow ever louder.

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