It promised to be an idyllic royal visit, but it turned out to be a diplomatic nightmare. Prince William and his wife, Kate, traveled to the Caribbean last March to strengthen the ties of the British monarchy with those Commonwealth states that distanced themselves from the former colonial power. It was a failure.
In Belize, they were forced to cancel a visit to a cocoa plantation after a group of activists refused to let them land on their land in protest of rights violations in the colonial era. Later, in Jamaica, the couple came under fire after their image was published waving to a crowd of black children huddled on a barbed wire fence. a walk in the jeep used by the Queen in 1962 ended up awakening the darkest colonial ghosts. Everything screeched on that trip to the Caribbean on the occasion of the Queen’s 70th jubilee. But above all, she acted as a thermometer of a mood that is perceived as agitated in some territories of the Commonwealth and in which the death of Queen Elizabeth II threatens to fuel the debate on the future of the Commonwealth of Nations.
During the reign of Elizabeth II, the Commonwealth grew from seven members to 56. In total, 2.5 billion people; that is, more than a third of the world’s population is under the umbrella of an organization without real power or shared sovereignty, but which acts as an institutional expression of the complex relationship between Great Britain and its former colonies. The king appears as head of state in the most formal version of him in 14 of those countries, including Canada, Australia, Belize, Jamaica, New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. Up to 36 of the member states of the Commonwealth are republics and the rest have other monarchs.
The death of Isabel II will foreseeably inject a new impetus to republicanism in some of those 14 countries. The first to raise his voice after the queen’s death was the Prime Minister of Old and beardedGaston Browne, who confirmed the plans to call a referendum and considered that declaring the republic “is not an act of hostility […] It is the final step to complete the circle of independence, to ensure that we are a truly sovereign nation,” he said last weekend. Barbados already proclaimed itself a republic last year, gaining independence from the British crown, while Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda and Belize plan to hold referendums.
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The late queen took extreme care of the relationship with the Commonwealth countries, to which she dedicated a third of her trips abroad. But that function that the queen exercised is not hereditary and it was only in 2018 when the Commonwealth countries decided in Windsor that the current King Charles III would assume the leadership of the organization when the queen died.
“Queen’s death marks final break with imperial Britain,” headlined the British magazine New Statesman, alluding to the new era that is opening in the United Kingdom and that will necessarily reverberate in those countries over which it once exercised imperial power. In recent years, the charisma of Elizabeth II, an elderly and kind queen, had somehow served as a containment dam for a latent malaise, but what was tolerated with her might be different with the new king, because the Personal respect for the queen is not necessarily hereditary.
The times are different and the sensitivities too. “The environment is changing,” says Philip Murphy, a historian at the University of London and former director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. “Colonialism has been the elephant in the room. There is much more awareness around the legacy of slavery and colonialism. There is a new generation of activists who speak of the brutality of colonialism and who ask for reparations for slavery in the Caribbean, and that is helping to generate a favorable climate for the republican movement”, he warns in a conversation with this newspaper. And he adds: “For republicans it does not seem logical that in the 21st century, the head of state of a country lives in London and is a British monarch. Although that does not have to affect relations with the Commonwealth.
Murphy recalls that the change had already begun, especially in the Caribbean, and that everything happens calmly, almost naturally. Proof of this, he says, was the presence of the Prince of Wales, the current king, in Barbados on the day of the proclamation of the republic last year. “Yours is a story in which every Barbadian, young and old, can feel the greatest pride, inspired by what has come before and confident in what comes after. […] You are the guardians of your heritage and firm artisans of your destiny”, he said, evidencing the assumption of an inevitable reality. The calm also has to do with the fact that becoming a republic does not mean leaving the Commonwealth. For example, when Barbados became a republic, it at the same time decided to remain part of the Commonwealth. But also because beyond the symbolic, the real power of the organization is limited. “The Commonwealth does not have an impressive record of achievement over the last 30 years. It is a marginal diplomatic network, which is especially useful for small countries, but which has partly lost its reason for being, “says Murphy.
Still, the power of symbols should not be underestimated. The identity and subterranean struggle that runs through some Commonwealth countries could open deep cracks in the organization. Hence the conscious effort since the 1990s to present itself as a union of common values rather than a shared history and to focus on issues such as climate change or human rights.
The shock wave has also reached Australia, where the death of the queen has contributed to the debate also gaining new strength. Cindy McCreery, a historian at the University of Sydney specializing in the British royal family, explains in an interview via Zoom that at the moment a referendum is not planned in Australia. That is, at least during the first term of current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, despite the fact that he recently appointed a minister to oversee the transition to a republic. Adam Bandt, Leader of the Australian Greens, yes, he has rushed to ask the country for a change in the heat of events in the United Kingdom. “We need to become a republic,” she tweeted after the queen’s death. Meanwhile, Albanese has been forced to defend the official day of mourning and national holiday decreed in his country for the death of Elizabeth II in the face of protests by shopkeepers and health workers.
But one thing is that the debate has become more uncomfortable and another that there is a serious risk of rupture in the Commonwealth. McCreery is more optimistic and thinks that in some way the issues that concern many of the small states of the Commonwealth, such as climate change, are precisely part of the priorities of Carlos III. “The Commonwealth is a platform for countries to talk to each other and it will be right there where the king has more space to deal with these issues than in his own country,” he concludes.
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