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Queen’s death leaves Commonwealth with uncertain future

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, after 70 years on the throne, is likely to spark profound questions for the global reach and reputation of the British monarchy.

(CN) — As the United Kingdom conducts its eighth day of national mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II last week, political debate in the country remains silenced and international tributes continue to flood in. However, following the popular queen’s funeral on Monday, there is a growing recognition that the British monarchy’s global reach is likely to reduce without her presence.

The Commonwealth of Nations – an organization of 56 nation states that were formerly colonial possessions of the British Empire – faces an increasingly uncertain future without the figurehead that helped to maintain and modernize the monarchy throughout the turbulent process of decolonization.

It becomes the job of the new king, Charles III, to forge a new sense of purpose and common identity for an organization that is increasingly viewed by many member states as outdated, listless and enmeshed in a broader reevaluation of the British Empire’s problematic legacy.

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the realms of the Commonwealth – the 15 nation states which retain the British monarch as their head of state. Through the realms the British royal family continues to provide a monarch for more than 150 million people around the world, though consent for such an arrangement is seen as increasingly shaky.

Debate over the future of the constitutional status of the realms was ignited in 2021 when Barbados – previously thought of as so staunchly monarchist that it was dubbed “Little England” – became a republic.

At the time, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley directly linked her country’s constitutional monarchy with the history of imperialism, stating that “the time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind.”

"This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving," she added.

The decision sparked a fresh wave of discussion in the Caribbean over the appropriateness of retaining the monarchy. In March, a high-profile visit to Jamaica by the then-Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge – William and Catherine – backfired when the royal couple were met by protests demanding reparations for slavery. In a PR blunder, the couple were publicly informed by Prime Minister Andrew Holness that the country intended to move on from the monarchy. The Jamaican government subsequently stated their intention to become a republic no later than 2025.

That republican sentiment was on the rise even before the death of the queen will ring alarm bells in Buckingham Palace. For decades, discussion regarding abolition of the monarchy was generally thought to be on hold until the end of Elizabeth II’s reign.

And indeed the death of the monarch has immediately fired a starting gun on further republican movements. Last Sunday, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, announced that he planned to hold a referendum on becoming a republic in the next three years, pending his reelection in 2023. And on Thursday the prime minister of the Bahamas, Phillip Davis, reaffirmed his commitment to a republican referendum in the near future after signing a book of condolences for the late queen.

There is also high-level discussion between political parties over the possibility of a republican referendum in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines after Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves proposed as much in July. Other realms in which republican sentiment is thought to be high include Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Lucia.

But it is not just the Caribbean where the monarchy faces an uncertain future. The new prime minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese, is a lifelong republican. Albanese has ruled out a referendum during the current electoral term, but his republican sentiments seem likely to become more prominent if he wins a second term, in a country which only narrowly voted to retain the monarchy back in 1999.

Similarly, Prime Minster of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern is another republican who has ruled out a referendum for the time being, though she stated her belief that New Zealand would break with the monarchy and that such a development “is likely to occur in my lifetime.”

The British monarchy can rely on greater levels of support in the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, while a republican movement doesn’t appear likely to change Canada’s constitutional arrangements any time soon.

But beyond simply the realms, the wider Commonwealth is also under question. With an unclear mission, limited resources and loose institutional arrangements, the purpose and benefits of Commonwealth membership are increasingly unclear for many member states – particularly as the U.K.’s role in global leadership appears to have diminished since leaving the European Union.

In addition, it is not immediately clear that Charles possesses the same level of commitment and passion for the Commonwealth of Nations that his mother clearly did. In June this year he was matter-of-fact on the subject of republicanism, stating that it is a decision for the realms themselves and the monarchy should not interfere.

“The benefit of long life brings me the experience that arrangements such as these can change calmly and without rancour,” he said at the time.

The Commonwealth received only passing reference in the king’s inaugural address. Instead the king’s focus has been squarely on the unity of the domestic union since his ascension to the throne.

Charles III has delivered impassioned speeches in the capital cities of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, in which he has emphasized the personal importance of each nation to his family. He spoke in Edinburgh of how Scotland provided the queen with her true home, in Belfast of how she prayed for peace in Northern Ireland throughout her reign, and in Cardiff delivered an address starting in fluent Welsh.

The interventions are politically significant at a time of peril for the union, with the Scottish government launching a renewed push for independence and reunification sentiment on the rise in Northern Ireland. It may well be the case that the king’s focus on domestic unity takes greater priority than holding together an apparently waning international club of nations.

In her first Christmas address after her coronation, in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II said of the Commonwealth that it “bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace.”

“To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life,” she added.

It remains to be seen whether this vision of the Commonwealth can long outlive the figurehead upon whom, for so long, it appeared to depend.

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