Table of contents
1. What is the Commonwealth?
The Commonwealth is a free association of sovereign states comprising of the UK and many of its former dependencies. It has no formal constitution or byelaws, and members have no legal or formal obligations to one another. All members commit to the development of “free and democratic societies” and the “promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all the people of the Commonwealth”.
Although the Commonwealth’s roots are linked to the British empire, today any country can join. It currently has 56 members. The Commonwealth’s membership contains both advanced economies and developing nations. It has an overall combined population of 2.5 billion people, and more than 60 percent of this population are aged 29 and under. The combined gross domestic product of Commonwealth countries in 2021 was US$13.1tn and is estimated to reach US$19.5tn in 2027.
The late Queen Elizabeth II had been the head of the Commonwealth since her ascension to the throne in 1952. The role is a symbolic one with no fixed term. Following the 2018 Commonwealth heads of government meeting, Commonwealth leaders agreed that the then Prince of Wales, Charles, would be the next head of the Commonwealth. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III ascended to the throne on 8 September 2022. He was formally proclaimed King on 10 September 2022. In turn, he also became the head of the Commonwealth and the head of state for 15 Commonwealth realms.
2. What does the future hold for the Commonwealth?
The Queen’s death has increased speculation about the future of the Commonwealth, with some commentators arguing that several countries could move to become republics. In the past year, six Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda; the Bahamas; Belize; Grenada; Jamaica; and St Kitts and Nevis) have outlined their intention to become republics. The move would follow Barbados, which removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state to become a republic in November 2021. However, the countries have all stated that they intended to remain in the association.
In an interview with Time magazine in September 2022, Cindy McCreery, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sydney, said that she thought discussions about possible moves by Commonwealth countries to become republics would now “open up”. She also stated that she thought there was “a great sense of restraint” in discussing the moves during the Queen’s reign. Speaking to CNN, Kate Williams, a royal historian, said that she expected the Commonwealth to “fragment” during the reign of King Charles III as many countries sought to become republics.
Expressing a similar view, Fatma Khaled, a writer for Newsweek, warned that the King faced a “Commonwealth crisis”. This followed an announcement by the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, that the country planned to hold a referendum within three years on becoming a republic. In an interview with ITV News on 11 September 2022, Mr Browne stated that:
This is a matter that has to be taken to a referendum for the people to decide. It does not represent any form of disrespect to the monarch. This is not an act of hostility, or any difference between Antigua and Barbuda and the monarchy. It is a final step to complete the circle of independence to become a truly sovereign nation.
However, other commentators have argued that King Charles III’s commitment to the Commonwealth would ensure it did not fragment.
Following his proclamation on 10 September 2022, the King met with the High Commissioners of Commonwealth members at Buckingham Palace. Speaking after the event, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, stated that the late Queen had left the Commonwealth in “robust good health”. However, Baroness Scotland conceded that the King would be expected to have “challenging conversations” with some Commonwealth countries. Despite this, she stated that King Charles III would “take up that mantle” and that he would “work as hard as she [Queen Elizabeth II], and for that we should also be truly grateful”.
Similarly, speaking to the Financial Times in September 2022, Richard Uku, a former director of communications at the commonwealth secretariat, stated that whilst he did not think that anyone could “command the respect that the Queen did in the Commonwealth and beyond”, he believed that King Charles III had a “deep understanding and appreciation of what his mother has put into the Commonwealth to sustain it”.
The former prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, was also hopeful that the new monarch would be able to keep the Commonwealth together. Speaking to the BBC, Ms Clark stated that the King had “also travelled very widely in the Commonwealth” and that she thought it would be a priority for him “to be out and about renewing the ties in his new capacity” and that he would “bring his own touch to it”.
Cover image by Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on Flickr.