Can King Charles Preserve the Commonwealth?

Michael Jennings

Image courtesy of Stefan Rousseau / Pool / AFP

Queen Elizabeth II was never a parochial figure, solely of interest to the UK and Northern Ireland, and the 14 other realms of which she was head of state. During her 70 years on the throne, she met 13 US presidents, more global leaders than perhaps anyone else, and saw the United Nations expand from 60 to 197 countries. And despite a recent slowing down in her world travels, she came third  in a 2021 global survey of the world’s “most admired women.”

But her global legacy is complicated. For all the respect and love, even, for the queen, there are those for whom she represents an institution and system responsible for harm, violence and exploitation across Britain’s former empire and beyond. With the succession of the new king, what does this mean for the British monarchy and its relationship with peoples and countries beyond the UK. And in particular, what of the Commonwealth? The club of 56, mostly former members of the British Empire. Given the complicated legacy of the monarchy, can it survive the death of a queen who was perhaps respected more for her dedication and commitment than the wider institution she headed?

Once the public displays of mourning and respect are over, questions are likely to be raised in the remaining non-British countries for whom the queen was head of state over their continued relationship. As the decision of Barbados to become a republic last year showed, there has long been a growing appetite for cutting this formal link to the British monarchy. There is likely to be a new push by many in countries like Australia, Jamaica (which has just announced its intention to hold a referendum), and Grenada for becoming a republic. The succession of the new monarch will be seized upon as an opportunity for a new start.

But if the number of countries of which King Charles III is head of state is likely to fall over the next few years, these formal ties were never the foundation of the queen’s global yet quiet, mostly invisible, authority. This was founded more on her leadership of the Commonwealth, and soft-power relationships of state dinners, informal chats and the power of pageantry. While the new king will be able to continue the latter two, having formed his own relationships with world leaders through his long heirship, there are questions about what his accession means for the Commonwealth.

Charles was chosen as the next head of the Commonwealth at the 2018 heads of government meeting. But this was always more reflective of the warm bonds of affection for the queen within the Commonwealth, than an active support for the then Prince Charles.

For a reign that began in the last, desperate and violent days of empire, the respect for the queen in its former colonies has always been something of a puzzle. Some of the most important moments of her reign occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1947, in a speech broadcast from Cape Town, she pledged a life of service to the peoples of the empire and Commonwealth. It was in Kenya that she learned she had become queen after the death of her father. She received much credit, too, for her role in persuading British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to drop her opposition to Commonwealth sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

The Commonwealth meetings allowed her to chat and get to know the leaders of 2.5 billion people. But still, it was the person, and her evident personal commitment and love for the Commonwealth that proved the glue for these bonds. Charles has visited around 45 of the 56 Commonwealth countries, and has voiced his own commitment. But he has had – as heir rather than monarch – fewer opportunities to prove that commitment through his own “Thatcher moment.”

While he cannot inherit those ties of affection, nor gain decades worth of respect within a few months, he does have an opportunity to make his own mark, and to ensure the British monarchy continues to exercise its peculiar form of global authority.

Charles has been vocal, long before it became subject of global concern, on environmental issues and climate change. This is an area he could use his informal power to speak to global leaders and institutions, and support those Commonwealth countries which will be impacted the most by rising temperatures, sea-levels and extreme weather events. He will be constrained in his public voice, but being able to meet world leaders and institutions gives an opportunity few others will ever have.

His desire to be seen as a defender of the faiths, rather than the traditional defender of the Anglican faith, may also be useful. He has shown himself interested in other cultures and religions, supporting cross-faith dialogue and understanding. This, too, would help build new bonds within the diversity of the Commonwealth. And the work he has supported through his Prince’s Trust, a charity focused on young people, would be an ideal platform for a more Commonwealth-wide focus on global youth. With more than half the global population under the age of 30, a champion for youth (even if that champion is in their 70s) would strengthen the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is at a tipping point: it could easily slide into irrelevance, or become a somewhat aimless club. As king, Charles will have access to global leaders and institutions; and a powerful, quiet influence. By serving as an ally to states most threatened by the climate emergency in the corridors of global power, by championing youth, and diversity, Charles has an opportunity to renew and strengthen the bonds of the Commonwealth, and perhaps create a legacy for his own successor to build on.

Michael Jennings is a professor in global development at SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development.