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 height of British power on the world stage. Six decades after her accession to the throne, Victoria, then half-blind and generally crippled, was at the top of an imperial chain that wound through every continent, binding a quarter of the globe under the suzerainty of the British crown.

But, as the spectacle of Victoria’s Jubilee offered a vision of the most powerful political regime in the world, the commemorations of 70 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign cannot hide the very weakened state of Britain.

Australia this week named Matt Thistlewaite as the country’s prime minister to oversee the transition to a republic, fueling growing concerns that the new prime minister in Canberra could call a referendum to impeach the queen in as sovereign.

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

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Commonwealth history

The Commonwealth grew out of Queen Victoria’s attempt to maintain control over the colonies despite their growing calls for independence. In 1867, after Canada made known its frustrations with imperial oversight, the Queen agreed to grant the territory dominion status, which meant it would have self-rule, but Britain could oppose its veto to policies at the discretion of the monarch.

Over the following decades, Britain’s (mostly white) colonies also became dominions, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. After World War I, the rise of nationalism in the Dominions again altered the status quo and in 1926 Britain and the Dominions agreed that they would be equal in status. This declaration, formalized in 1931, marked the founding of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Although India was present at these talks, it continued to press for full independence and when New Delhi was invited to join the Commonwealth in 1949, Prime Minister Nehru accepted a crucial caveat. India has asked the group to allow its membership without the requirement to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Member countries agreed and later that year India, Pakistan and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) were added to the ranks.

The Commonwealth of Nations became a body encompassing 54 member states, including a few that had never been British colonies. These countries recognize their common values ​​and their 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 retains its right to override certain issues.

The Queen and the Commonwealth

Queen Elizabeth first cemented her dedication to the Commonwealth on her 21st birthday when she broadcast a broadcast from South Africa addressing ‘the youth of the British family of nations’ and pledging to devote his 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 tends to stem both from her impartiality and from the fact that having visited 116 countries, she is probably the most traveled head of state in history.

Elizabeth, 96, is Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and the first to serve for 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 given credence to racial equality and the bonds between nations. Notably, in 1995, she traveled to South Africa to commemorate the end of apartheid and enthrone the African nation in the Commonwealth.

Some, like historian Ben Pimlott, suggest that the Queen needs the Commonwealth more than she needs her. He said: “The Monarchy, with its imperial memory, was keenly seeking a role in the Commonwealth, partly to justify itself, but also because it had taken its supranational role seriously and – in a way that did not never fully understood by politicians – it continued to relate to remote communities that showed their loyalty in ways that did not necessarily come to Whitehall’s attention.

However, despite this connection, the Queen has no influence over the governance of the members of the Commonwealth of Nations and little influence over those who form the Commonwealth realm. With regard to the latter, the Queen has certain constitutional obligations, including the approval of new governments. Depending on the country, it may also formally approve legislation, grant state honors and appoint certain officials.

Yet, according to a report by the Council for Foreign Relations, these roles are “largely ceremonial”. There is, however, one significant exception. In 1975, the Governor-General of Australia (the Queen’s representative in the country) unilaterally removed the incumbent Prime Minister to break a parliamentary deadlock which, in turn, sparked a constitutional crisis. Apart from that, the queen rarely intervened.

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

It should also be noted that the British monarch is not automatically the head of the Commonwealth although the organization announced in 2018 that Prince Charles would succeed his mother.

Why do countries leave?

In the 1970s, a host of countries chose to leave the Commonwealth realm, including Dominica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. Barbados last year became the newest country to leave with its Governor-General saying ‘now is the time to completely leave behind our colonial past’. The release was also timed to mark the 55th anniversary of Barbados’ independence from the United Kingdom.

The association with colonization is what caused India and Nigeria to refuse to join the kingdom and now member states are discussing it as a reason to leave. In this regard, the secondary role of the queen in governance plays an important role. While nationalist debates often capture political heartbeats, for many people living in the kingdom, the organization plays only a small role in their lives. They, relieved to know the realities of colonialism, can only associate the Commonwealth with the rare visits of the Queen or the popular games of the Commonwealth.

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

Another reason to leave is that Britain’s priorities may not align with those of member states. While in recent years these divides may have been cultural, in the past they have also concerned foreign policy issues. In 1939, when the United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany, the Union of South Africa and Canada waited over a week to do the same. During this period, 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 driven a wedge between the crown and its black Commonwealth subjects. Jamaica, a member of the kingdom, has been particularly vocal in this regard, even asking the queen for reparations for the role of the Crown in the transatlantic slave trade.

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

Analysts have differing opinions on the likelihood of further departures from the kingdom. Kings College professor Richard Drayton argued that leaving Barbados could be the tipping point while others said its impact could be mitigated given each country’s demands for breaking with the Crown.

In Canada, leaving the kingdom would require a constitutional amendment, despite the fact that more than half of Canadian voters support the removal of the queen as head of state. There is also the question of popularity. While the Queen continues to command respect, the same may not be true for her successors. Perhaps then, when his seven-decade rule comes to an end, so will a union forged on the basis of subordination and tainted by its association with racism and colonial rule.

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