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King Charles and The Commonwealth: confidence and concern

Written by Dr Sue Onslow |

The Commonwealth has been front and centre in the ceremonies around the Queen’s death and accession of King Charles: from Secretary General’s presence and prominence at the Accession Council, receptions given to the SG and Commonwealth leaders and diplomats, the marked honour of the SG’s role as the reader of the first lesson at the state funeral, military representation and even the landmarks along the ceremonial procession from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch. The convening soft power and magnetism of the Queen radiated through the broadcast of the state funeral.  The Commonwealth was her idea of inclusive ‘identity politics’.

How long will this convening power and the attractions of joining this organisation last? In Baroness Scotland’s press interview last week, the Secretary General asserted that the Commonwealth as an organisation is in excellent health, citing as evidence the inclusion of two new members taking the total from an original group of eight in 1952 to 56 nations.  This statement overlooked the existing significant pressures and strains in the modern Commonwealth as it moves into the post-Elizabethian era. King Charles himself faces a multiplicity of challenges in his new role as ceremonial head. As the media bombardment since the Queen’s death has made clear, there is general public mystification about the organisation and the extent to which the King leads it, as well as the separate aspect of the Monarch as head of state in Commonwealth Realms. The perennial questions have, of course, come up: What does the Commonwealth do? What is it for? The Queen has been repeatedly credited with helping to ensure the survival of the Commonwealth, although the royal branding of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London carried its own problems. It helped to cement the public perception of tight bonds between monarchy and association. The automatic link in people’s minds was Queen/Commonwealth; it will be more difficult for King Charles to fuse the two in public perceptions. There are also rising questions in the young Commonwealth about the monarchy in domestic and international politics more generally, which promise ‘controversial conversations’. More on those later.

Some of the press headlines point to image issues and levels of disengagement, indifference, even hostility, which are directly connected to the King as a political persona and his identity as the latest representative of a hereditary, hierarchical 1000-year old institution. Handling these issues will require diplomatic sensitivity and astute political judgment, as the King navigates the cataracts ahead. Much has been made of his mother’s devotion and determination to foster and protect the Commonwealth as her second most significant legacy (after the unity of the United Kingdom). With this has come the implicit suggestion is that King Charles does not care as much. The care and due attention – and publicity – given to the Secretary General, Commonwealth representatives and personal audiences with Commonwealth leaders since the Queen’s death demonstrates that Palace officials are hypersensitive to the need to dispel any such impression. The photograph of the King receiving Secretary General’s condolences also conveyed the British head of state’s and head of the Commonwealth’s support for SG Scotland after the fractious and divisive leadership contest earlier this summer. (The Truss government still has to do quite a bit of fence mending with Marlborough House.)

There are other issues which King Charles can do nothing about in his required balancing act as ceremonial head. First, there are the facts of his gender and age: The Queen’s gender as a woman was a key part of her ‘soft power’ with the cultivated image as mother and then grandmother of the Commonwealth ‘family’. In the past the diplomatic lever of ‘not embarrassing the Queen’ was used very effectively to rein in particularly bad-tempered debate, exploiting both respect for her office and her identity as a woman among socially conservative Commonwealth male leaders. The knowledge of her long involvement with the changing Commonwealth, her friendships with past titans of nationalist movements and post-independence era, earned her enormous respect and authority. Put frankly, King Charles has less time, and current Commonwealth leaders are men and women of lesser stature. Most also have shorter terms in office than the era of lengthy leadership of one-party states – the recent trend of constitutional change to allow ‘fourth termism’ in presidential office, notwithstanding. He also has very limited opportunities for ‘ballroom diplomacy’, such as the striking image of his mother’s waltz with President Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Pan Africanism and critic of British imperialism. The symbolism of this was enormous at a time of widespread racial segregation and apartheid oppression in South Africa.

Secondly, the era of post-independence amnesia about the repression of colonial rule, and violence which often accompanied transitions to independence, is ending. In the accelerating debates around republicanism in the Caribbean, there is considerable anger at the monarchy’s refusal to acknowledge its role in colonialism and the institution’s reluctance to engage with the reparations debate. King Charles’ speech in the opening ceremony of the Kigali heads of Government meeting made express reference to his profound sorrow and deepening appreciation of the lasting trauma of slavery, urging that the time for difficult conversations has come and they begin with listening. The importance of this is three-fold: King Charles firmly indicated that he sees the Commonwealth as the best platform for these challenging conversations, rather than a bilateral dialogue with each former colony, and he wishes to be part of the solution, rather than a symbol of the problem. This will be difficult terrain to negotiate as the head of state of the United Kingdom and may set him at odds with Downing Street. Furthermore, Commonwealth governments’ foreign policies are shaped by their domestic environment; there may be a highly conscious decision to try to offset young people’s disenchantment with politicians and their scepticism about political institutions by ramping up the rhetoric against Britain’s colonial exploitation and failure to address these legacies, together with louder demands for reparations and restitution of cultural heritage artefacts. As in the time of the long running crisis of Rhodesian unilateral declaration of independence against the British government, and the struggle against apartheid South Africa, the British government may find itself hauled into the dock in Commonwealth debates and meetings. King Charles is more likely to be caught in the cross-fire and will not have the ‘soft power’ of his mother to protect him. There is also the question of Britain’s own diminished soft power, diplomatic access and voice in support of developmental states, following the exit from the European Union. There is an increasing shift in the power structures of the Commonwealth as a direct consequence of Britain’s declining prestige and economic difficulties – whilst the Johnson and Truss governments attempts to lead through the Commonwealth risk diplomatic blow-back.

Thirdly, King Charles faces the paradoxical reality of an international organisation of diminished contemporary relevance in popular perceptions, and the centrifugal forces of regionalism, but which is also expanding in size. This expansion is also bringing important structural shifts. The increasingly sharp dichotomy within the expanding organisation is perceptible on a number of levels. With the recent inclusion of two Francophone African countries, there are now 20 African members of the Commonwealth, three of whom have no former association with the British empire. Commentators argue different legal systems, use of language, and cultural heritage are importantly different norms which will further dilute links across the association. Others take a more sanguine approach and feel that the Commonwealth is continuing to evolve, proof of the benefits of membership of a non-aligned club in a turbulent world.  The speed of Gabon’s successful application took long term Commonwealth watchers by surprise; the Patterson criteria appeared to have been ignored, and there are justifiable serious concerns about both countries’ human rights’ record. President Paul Kagame’s press conference at the end of the Kigali summit was an open declaration that the pendulum is swinging back to an earlier era of the Commonwealth – of states’ rights and absolute sovereignty and away from the narrative of a values-based association, and emphasis on human rights and fulfilment of the 2013 Charter. Thus, calls for King Charles to re-energize the Commonwealth beg the question, ‘which Commonwealth?’ Does it have a persuasive and clearly identifiable raison-d’etre since it is riven between states who see it as a functional network which can contribute to practical problem solving, and civil society organisations demanding redress and reform for human rights. Straddling this divide is the principal responsibility of the Secretary General; but King Charles will not be immune from the tensions, or criticism of the Commonwealth’s failure to live up to its lofty statements and ideals.

The sad death of the Queen marks the end of an era for the Commonwealth, and the rhetoric of chances of a new beginning with possibilities and opportunities should not be exaggerated. How long the legacy of the Queen’s version of identity politics and royal convening power lasts remains to be seen. Whether the Commonwealth seizes the nettle of reform is also moot. The signs are not encouraging. It clearly failed following the 2011 Eminent Persons Report, and merely tinkered with the system. The Commonwealth likes to boast it works by consensus. Achieving consensus was difficult enough in the 1970s when there were 22 members; with 56 members, and more in the waiting room (South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Morocco), decision making has slowed to a glacial pace. In the 2020s, this way of working has passed its operational sell-by date. There is a powerful argument for the Commonwealth to adopt the Francophonie’s approach of seeking consensus in the first round, and if this fails, majoritarianism in the second. The chances of changing the clumsy title of CHOGM are slightly higher; this would at least underline the fact that the weeklong get-together is now more than a truncated meeting of Commonwealth leaders.

None of this means that the Commonwealth is destined to unravel, leaving only King Charles like a collar at the top; or that it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, or political and public indifference. The modern Commonwealth owed a great deal to the energy and personal diplomacy of key leaders, rather than simply the Queen’s efforts. The evidence to date is that King Charles is up to the job, but he can only do so much. The problem with the potential leadership deficit in the Commonwealth lies elsewhere.  Like the modern Commonwealth itself, its advocates should be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved.