R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
September 23, 2022
The Commonwealth: What future?

Continuing from last week when we looked at issues arising from the death of the late British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, we can broaden the discussion to the future of the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly the British Commonwealth, which is headed by the monarch of Britain, King Charles 111.

Those in charge of the royal institution took full advantage of the global swell of emotion for the late monarch with a full and superb coverage of the funeral reaching out not just to the millions in the UK itself but reaching billions the world over. This would have helped greatly in stirring sympathy and support for the institution, masking its many failings and even fostering longings for its continuation.

Unfortunately for the pro-colonials, even in the midst of all the pomp and splendour, there was no escaping the realities of today’s world.

These included the future of the monarchy itself, that of the Commonwealth and the vexed question of Reparations. Thus commentators were heard to refer from time to time to the issues surrounding removing the British monarch as Head of State of countries like our own, collectively called the realm, and adopting republicanism as the form of government.

Ironically this conversation was fuelled by the Heads of Government of two Caribbean states, Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda. Both, in sending messages of sympathy, reiterated their decision to remove the British monarch, though “not yet”. They were the only two Caribbean parts of “the realm” to declare public holidays for the funeral and, in the case of Antigua, even hold an official memorial event.

In spite of all the information available, there is still a lot of public confusion over the issues of republican status and membership of the Commonwealth. In fact, so uninformed were several commentators during their coverage of the funeral, that several of them could not make the distinction between achieving independence and adopting republican status. These were seasoned commentators on supposedly responsible international networks!

Ignorance on this subject was deliberately fostered during the campaign leading up to our 2009 constitutional referendum. Those who misled others for short-term political gain are still to make an effort to at least correct their distortions, if they are ashamed to apologize. The confusion still exists.

The distortions surround “getting rid of the queen”, the future of our currency without the royal imprint (the queen’s head on it) and all other kinds of irrelevancies. There are still many who do not realize that most Commonwealth States are republics. These include India, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.

They have all consented to the British monarch (not “the queen”) to be Head of the Commonwealth with clearly defined roles. In fact at the Commonwealth Summit in 2018, they agreed that when the monarch died her successor would become Head of the Commonwealth.

The inherent rejection of colonialism and the failure of the Commonwealth to both identify and forge a new path for formerly independent states continue to blight its image. This has led to calls for an end to this institution. Not surprisingly, the death of Elizabeth of Windsor has heightened these calls.

Yet it is important for governments who must respond to such calls to carefully weigh up the pros and cons before making any such decision.

Can the Commonwealth be reformed rather than abolished altogether? Are the non-white states, the overwhelming majority in the Commonwealth, prepared to take the lead, and responsibility, for reforming the institution? Are they prepared for instance to fund and ensure its financial viability?

Leaving these essential tasks up to the UK, Australia and Canada for instance, has given these states, with fundamentally different outlooks, with the real power in the Commonwealth.

Defining a new path for the Commonwealth and reforming its institutions are tasks which, as the experience of the United Nations has shown, can be formidable goals to achieve. Yet apart from the UN itself, there is no other global body to which we belong which has such possibilities, which provides such a wide range of connections. How can we utilize these?

One critical factor if success is to be achieved in reforming and re-focusing the Commonwealth must be the unity of purpose among the former colonies.

The British monarch, indeed Elizabeth 11, was the face of the Commonwealth. If there is not commitment to a common purpose, political in-fighting can easily wreck all efforts at reform. We all witnessed the embarrassing scene of Caribbean in-fighting for the post of Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, fuelled by some of the “big” states.

What would happen in an election for Head of a re-invigorated institution? Would we witness an emergence of regionalism and the emergence of blocs?

It is not an easy road to walk. Even those countries whose interests lie in reforming and strengthening such international institutions are prone to be caught in rhetoric and to look for the easy way out.

Our governments cannot duck the issue. If their experience tells them that there is no future for the Commonwealth, they must come out openly and let us debate the issue. Let us have openness in such a debate and discussion.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.