Has the sun finally set on the British Empire? The Queen and the Commonwealth explained

When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it marked the pinnacle of British power on the world stage. Six decades since she took the throne, Victoria, then half-blind and generally frail, stood at the apex of an imperial chain that weaved its way through every continent, tying a quarter of the globe together under the rule of the British crown.

But since the spectacle of Victoria’s Jubilee offered a picture of the world’s most powerful polity, the commemorations of Queen Elizabeth’s 70th reign cannot hide Britain’s greatly diminished state.

This week, Australia appointed Matt Thistlewaite as the country’s prime minister charged with overseeing a transition to a republic, fueling growing concerns that Canberra’s new prime minister could call for a referendum to remove the Queen as sovereign. .

Although Elizabeth’s 70-year reign is usually associated with the United Kingdom, she is technically the head of state of 14 other countries – the immediate remnants of the empire – collectively known as the Commonwealth realms. The Commonwealth realms represent the last vestiges of a forgotten empire, a fraying thread that binds the Queen to 150 million people outside the UK, most of whom have never experienced the relationship with Britain that predates the origins of the group.

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History of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth was born out of Queen Victoria’s attempt to maintain control of the colonies, despite their growing calls for independence. In 1867, after Canada expressed its frustrations with Imperial oversight, the Queen agreed to grant the area dominion status, meaning it would have self-government, but Britain could veto it at the monarch’s discretion. policy.

Over the following decades, British colonies (mainly white) also became domains, including Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. After World War I, rising nationalism in the dominions again changed the status quo and in 1926 Britain and the dominions agreed that they would be equal in status. That declaration, formalized in 1931, marked the creation of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Although India attended those talks, it continued to push for full independence and when New Delhi was invited to join the Commonwealth in 1949, Prime Minister Nehru agreed to a crucial caveat. India asked the group to allow its membership without requiring it to swear allegiance to the Crown. The member countries agreed, and later that year, India, Pakistan and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) were added to the ranks.

The Commonwealth of Nations grew into a body that included 54 member states, including a few that were never British colonies. Those countries recognize their shared values ​​and ties to the British Empire, but do not recognize the Queen. Members of the Commonwealth realms are all independent sovereign nations, but the Crown still reserves the right to substitute certain things.

The Queen and the Commonwealth

Queen Elizabeth first confirmed her dedication to the Commonwealth on her 21st birthday when she aired a broadcast from South Africa addressing “the youth of the British family of nations” and pledging her life to the service of the union. Likewise, after her coronation, the Queen embarked on a tour of the Commonwealth, and was again greeted with much ceremony and fanfare. Her popularity mostly stems from both her impartiality and the fact that she has visited 116 countries and is probably the most traveled head of state in history.

Elizabeth, 96, is Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and the first in seven decades. (AP)

Her many tours have become symbols of British diplomacy and although she rarely speaks publicly about her social views, many of her visits have increased the credibility of racial equality and ties between nations. Notably, in 1995, she visited South Africa to commemorate the end of apartheid and add the African nation to the Commonwealth.

Some, such as historian Ben Pimlott, suggest that the Queen needs the Commonwealth more than she does. He had stated: “The monarchy, with its imperial memory, ardently sought a Commonwealth role, partly to justify itself, but also because it had taken its supranational role seriously, and – in a way never quite understood by politicians — it continued to relate to distant communities showing their loyalty in ways that didn’t necessarily come to Whitehall’s attention.”

However, despite this bond, the Queen has no influence over the governance of the members of the Commonwealth of Nations and little influence over those who make up the Commonwealth of Nations. With regard to the latter, the Queen has some constitutional duties, most notably the approval of new governments. Depending on the country, she may also formally pass legislation, confer state awards and appoint certain officials.

But according to a report from the Foreign Relations Council, these roles are “largely ceremonial.” However, there is one important exception. In 1975, the Governor-General of Australia (the Queen’s representative in the country) unilaterally fired the incumbent prime minister to break a parliamentary deadlock that in turn sparked a constitutional crisis. Apart from that, the queen has rarely intervened.

The Red Arrows perform a flypast after the Trooping the Color ceremony. (AP)

It’s also worth noting that the British monarch is not automatically the head of the Commonwealth, although the organization did announce in 2018 that Prince Charles would succeed his mother.

Why are countries leaving?

In the 1970s, numerous countries chose to leave the Commonwealth realm, including Dominica, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. Last year, Barbados became the most recent country to leave with its governor-general arguing that “the time has come to put our colonial past completely behind us”. The exit was also slated to mark the 55th anniversary of Barbados’ independence from the UK.

Its association with colonization has prompted India and Nigeria to refuse to join the empire and now it is being discussed by member states as the reason for leaving. In this regard, the Queen’s backseat role in governance plays an important role. While nationalist debates often set the political heartbeat, for many of the people living in the empire, the organization plays only a minor role in their lives. Those who are not bothered by a knowledge of the realities of colonialism can only associate the Commonwealth with the rare visits of the Queen or with the popular Commonwealth Games.

The Queen’s guards march during the Trooping the Color parade at Horse Guards. (AP)

Another reason for leaving is that Britain’s priorities may not match those of Member States. While those dividing lines may have been cultural in recent years, they have also involved foreign policy matters in the past. In 1939, when the UK declared war on Nazi Germany, the Union of South Africa and Canada waited over a week to do the same. At that time, King George VI, as King of the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Canada, was both at war and at peace with Germany.

Such stark contrasts are rare today, but the Black Lives Matter protests have caused a rift between the crown and its black Commonwealth subjects. Jamaica, a member of the Empire, has been particularly vocal in this regard, even petitioning the Queen for reparations for the Crown’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

A crowd fills The Mall as they wait for the Royal Family to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London. (AP)

Analysts have differing views on the likelihood of even more exits from the empire. Kings College professor Richard Drayton has argued that Barbados’ departure could be the tipping point, while others have stated its impact could be muted given each country’s requirements to break with the Crown.

In Canada, leaving the Empire would require a constitutional amendment, despite more than half of Canadian voters favoring the removal of the Queen as head of state. There is also the question of popularity. While the Queen continues to gain respect, her successors may not. Perhaps a union forged on the basis of subordination and tainted by its association with racism and colonial rule must then end when her seven-decade reign ends.

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