In November of 2021, Barbados became the first Commonwealth nation since Mauritius to formally remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and declare itself a republic. During the ceremony, the peaceful transfer of power was symbolized by a final salute to the Royal Standard flag, before it was then lowered one final time from a flagpole in the capital city of Bridgetown. The then-Prince, Charles, attended the event, and in his speech, spoke of the “appalling atrocity of slavery” which “forever stains [Britian’s] history.” Barbados was one of Britain’s first slave colonies, first settled by English colonists in 1627, where it was then swiftly transformed into a sugar plantation colony built on the backs of forced labor shipped in from Africa. 200 years later in 1834, slavery was banned across the Empire, while it took a nearly equal amount of time after that for the Caribbean nation to cast off its final lines tying it to British rule.
Last Thursday, September 8, Queen Elizabeth II passed away as the second-longest-reigning monarch in recorded European history. No doubt much has been said about how the United Kingdom will attempt to find its new identity amidst the loss of its matriarchal queen, the only sovereign most of the world has ever associated with the country. But the future of the Commonwealth of Nations, 56 countries with historical ties to the British Empire, is perhaps the far more intriguing and consequential matter. Of those 56 nations, 15 of them recognize Charles III as their head of state. Whether that remains the case for very long seems increasingly doubtful.
The Queen, in many ways, was perhaps the singular figure keeping the Commonwealth relevant. On Christmas Day in 1953, the year after she took the throne, Elizabeth spoke of a union of nations dedicated not to British imperialism, but rather British democratic ideals. She envisioned “an entirely new conception – built on the highest qualities of the Spirit of Man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.” Images of the Queen being physically carried aloft a giant canoe by her Tuvaluan subjects in 1982 certainly call into question whether the Commonwealth’s actual function matched her aspirational words, but there’s no question that the collection of former colonies was, in a way, her diplomatic passion project.
As the world becomes more sensitive to the remaining injustices that shadow the legacy of European empires, the purpose of the Commonwealth-besides simply being a way for the British monarchy to stretch its influence (for better or worse) beyond the confines of their small island in the North Sea-will undoubtedly be debated vigorously in the coming years. It’s no accident that the former colonies historically subject to the greatest brutality, India, Ireland, and South Africa come to mind, were also the first to reject the crown as their legitimate rulers (not to mention, obviously, the United States). Conversely, the 14 remaining Commonwealth realms who swear loyalty to the crown are the nations whose histories are comparatively less fraught (and are almost uniformly Anglophone).
In 1999, Australia held a referendum on its status as a Commonwealth nation. 55% chose to continue accepting the Queen as head of state, but that was over 20 years ago, when Elizabeth was alive and well, and very popular worldwide. Following her passing, Adam Brandt, leader of the Australian Green Party, voiced his condolences, but urged that “Now Australia must move forward. We need a treaty with First Nations people, and we need to become a republic.” Following this sentiment, Brandt was called out as graceless by other members of parliament. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said “Today’s not a day for politics … I regard the Queen as someone who is worthy of respect from every single Australian.” But Mr. Albanese is himself an outspoken republican, as is pretty much all of his ruling Labour Party and many members of the opposition parties. Once all the pleasantries have been allowed to subside, the debate over Australian republicanism will surely heat up fiercely. Mr. Albanese has appointed an “assistant minister for the republic,” an entirely new office, and his party platform has already promised a referendum if he is elected to a second term.
It’s not just Australia either. Antigua and Barbuda just announced a commitment to hold a similar referendum within three years, and while only a third of New Zealanders currently support full independence, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said before that she fully expects her country to become a republic within her lifetime. Jamaica has already announced that the transition will be completed by the next general election in 2025. Prince William and Princess Kate visited the island just this past March, and were met with protests and demands for reparations. While Charles certainly seems more attuned to the feelings of his subjects abroad than his mother ever was, William appears to be even more so, and could push his father to welcome the dissolving of the Commonwealth altogether.
Canada may be the most enigmatic situation of all. Prime Minister Trudeau gushed about his experiences with the Queen during his speech, having first met her when he was just five years old.
There does not appear to be a simmering republican movement in the country, with both the ruling Liberals and opposition Conservatives usually taking proud monarchist stances. If there is potential for republican debate in Canada however, it may be in Québec, where it’s unlikely that Francophone Canadians would feel much closeness with Charles III. I could definitely see the Bloc Québécois taking a strong republican stance by the next general election. This, of course, would continue to strain the already worrying relations between Canada’s two halves.
But what of Britain itself? It has no shortage of crises at the moment. The tragic war in Ukraine is stressing energy supplies across all of Europe, but the UK appears to be facing particularly dire straits. Their new Prime Minister Liz Truss is laughably unprepared to adequately steer her country through the coming storm, stubbornly promising not to implement windfall taxes to pay for price caps, and insisting that the same old trickle-down sorcery will solve the very problems that it got the country into to begin with. Couple that with an exhausted Conservative government seemingly out of ideas, and the continuing ramifications of the nation’s catastrophic exit from the European Union, the UK certainly looks like it could use a kindly king to smile and wave and say everything’s alright.
But with Ms. Truss too busy cosplaying Margaret Thatcher and desperately peeling herself away from the often amusing, but no less dangerous antics of Boris Johnson, the very union of the nation looks like a pane of cracking glass. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has insisted on proceeding with a new independence referendum by 2023, with or without the consent of Westminster. The Scottish National Party’s leader in parliament, Ian Blackford, spends most of his floor time trolling the Tories and endlessly complaining about supposed injustices in Scotland. Westminster’s refusal to grant Ms. Sturgeon’s request (rightly or wrongly, neither Johnson nor Truss have had any incentive to say yes) has thrown the matter to the UK Supreme Court, which has yet to rule. It’s no secret that the Queen vehemently opposed Scottish independence, despite her usual political poker face. Charles, too, would rather not be the monarch that let Scotland go. But it really only feels like a matter of time.
The seemingly endless squabble between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland border, along with lessening political and religious violence, also fuels assumptions that Irish reunification will happen soon. The pro-Republic party Sinn Féin won a majority of seats in Northern Ireland’s Assembly just this year, for the first time ever. The Unionists must be sweating their balls off over all this. But again, it feels inevitable.
One could see Westminster pulling a hail mary move like proposing a reform to reorganize the UK into something more like the European Union (ironic, I know, but don’t put it past a desperate Truss), where it’s still one country, but only barely, with all four nations acting as separate political entities. Would this fly? Who can say. But it’s clear that many English politicians, and voters, for that matter, are still unwilling to view Britain as anything less than a top-5 world nation. From Johnson’s empire-baiting talk of a “Global Britain,” to Truss’ nonsense about an “aspiration nation,” one can sense their dread in realizing that England is not the center of the universe anymore. We’ll see how this all plays out, but within a decade or two, it’s not implausible to imagine a Charles III: King of England. Just England. God help him.