King Charles faces balancing act as Commonwealth head

King Charles faces a delicate task ahead of his mother’s funeral stewarding leaders of the 56-member Commonwealth who have questions about the future of the organisation on their mind.

The Commonwealth has evolved and expanded since its creation from the ashes of the British empire and has been held together in part by Queen Elizabeth II, who saw sustaining the organisation as a central part of her role.

But King Charles comes to the throne and becomes head of the Commonwealth at a time when critics say it has lost some of its sense of purpose, with Britain’s influence in the world in decline and republican voices strengthening in some of the 14 members who have the British monarch as head of state.

While expressions of sympathy from Commonwealth states have poured in since the Queen’s death, opinion within them is divided over what the organisation stands for and what the role of a British hereditary monarch should be on a global platform in the 21st century.

“There is this whole question of what does it do for us,” said an African official who has been involved with the Commonwealth for years.

“It doesn’t give aid. It no longer provides scholarships. We are not sitting around discussing democracy in Zimbabwe. The one thing younger people do see is the Commonwealth Games,” he said.

Prince Charles overseas the lowering of the Royal Standard   at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony to mark the birth of a new republic in Barbados in November 2021
Prince Charles overseas the lowering of the Royal Standard at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony to mark the birth of a new republic in Barbados in November 2021 © Toby Melville/PA

African leaders of the Commonwealth were fulsome in their messages of condolences. Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, called the Queen “the rock that kept the organisation sturdy and true to its positive beliefs”.

Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari described her as a “towering global personality and an outstanding leader”. Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, formerly a German and Belgian colony, which joined the Commonwealth in 2009, hailed the Queen’s “70 years of stewardship of the Commonwealth of Nations. The modern Commonwealth is her legacy.”

But the effusive comments are at odds with the perception of the Commonwealth in many African countries. Victor Ekwealor, a 30-year-old technology entrepreneur, speaking at a British visa processing centre in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos, said he was unsure what the point of the association was. “It feels like a coalition that exists for the sake of it,” he said.

For King Charles to consolidate his role, he would have to spend time with its leaders, in particular those from smaller states such as Fiji or Lesotho, for whom the association helps amplify their voices on the international stage, the African official added.

“The Queen always seemed to make a point of it. If a leader was in town it was either an official visit or she would have them to tea,” he said. “It remains to be seen how much priority King Charles will be giving it.”

Before his mother’s death, the then Prince of Wales told Commonwealth leaders that he treasured “the friendships we have built over these past 70 years and look forward to their deepening in the years ahead”. 

When Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, the Commonwealth in its current form had been in existence for only three years. It brought together the former nations of the British empire as London was pressing ahead with decolonisation.

In the decades since, the organisation has strengthened links between member countries and offered practical diplomatic and economic support, from election monitoring to promoting security co-operation.

Although the Queen was careful not to interfere in political matters in Britain, she used her influence on issues relating to the Commonwealth.

According to one of her biographers, Ben Pimlott, the Queen played an important role behind the scenes during the 1979 Commonwealth summit in Lusaka, bringing together Margaret Thatcher, then the UK’s new prime minister, with southern African leaders. The meeting was a precursor to the Lancaster House accord that led to Rhodesia achieving independence as Zimbabwe.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica, in March 2022 during their tour of the region
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica, in March 2022 during their tour of the region © Chris Jackson/PA

Philip Murphy, professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London, has also documented the Queen’s strong opposition to Britain’s commercial dealings with South Africa during the apartheid era. She was said to be disturbed by Thatcher’s hostility to the imposition of sanctions in the 1980s.

“I don’t think anyone can command the respect that the Queen did in the Commonwealth and beyond,” said Richard Uku, former director of communications at the commonwealth secretariat and a national of Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago and Britain.

“[King Charles] has other interests but I think he also has a deep understanding and appreciation of what his mother has put into the Commonwealth to sustain it,” he said.

In her final years, the Queen was determined that her heir should also succeed her as Commonwealth head, despite scepticism from some of its leaders who felt the role should rotate in future. Charles gradually became more active within the organisation and his succession was eventually endorsed after pleading from the Queen at a summit in 2018.

He takes over with some of the ties that held the organisation together fraying, particularly in the Caribbean. In July, he told Commonwealth leaders in Rwanda that it was up to each member to decide whether to keep the monarch as head of state, adding that “arrangements such as these can change, calmly and without rancour”.

Barbados last year elected to become a republic and, soon after, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had a difficult tour of the region, facing calls for slavery reparations.

The Fiji team at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July 2022
The Fiji team at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July 2022 © Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

On Friday, the lead article in one Jamaican newspaper suggested the Queen’s death the previous day would make it easier to “break with the monarchy”.

“Jamaica will go. That is partly because people like Charles have not made the effort to nurse those relationships,” the former Commonwealth official said, noting how younger generations were most sceptical about the monarchy.

Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, was more hopeful. “I think the Queen saw the Commonwealth very much as the legacy of her father and she committed herself wholly to it,” she told the BBC shortly after the Queen’s death.

“King Charles has also travelled very widely in the Commonwealth and I think it will be a priority for him also to be out and about renewing the ties in his new capacity . . . he will bring his own touch to it,” she added.

The Queen, former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and African leaders at the 1979 Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Lusaka
The Queen, former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and African leaders at the 1979 Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Lusaka © Anwar Hussein/Getty Images
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