Queen Elizabeth II was not only the head of the British state. She was an integral part of how a country regained its lost destiny. The empire was already in decline when the late queen became monarch, but the UK still had 70 overseas territories and basked in the afterglow of his moral and military triumph in World War II. The coronation was an event of global significance, its golden buzz an enactment of the kind of nation Britain thought it was. The monarchy was presented as the human face of the hierarchy.
But history has dispelled the illusion of timeless continuity through ceremonial ritual. With revolts simmering in nearly every imperial possession, Britain’s global footprint shrank. When Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, the Prince of Wales thought it was the “end of empire”. A myth arose that Britain had voluntarily decided to turn its colonies into a Commonwealth. Cruelly exploited for decades, the British colonies became independent republics with indecent haste. Today, there are only 15 kingdoms with the monarch as head of state. That number is expected to drop: Barbados became a republic last year, Jamaica should follow – and even possibly Australia.
The Commonwealth, with the Queen at its head, was a club designed as a destination for countries parachuting out of British rule. The monarch maintained warm personal relationships with many Commonwealth leaders to keep the group together. Whether King Charles III can carry on his mother’s legacy is another question. He succeeded her as head – although the position was not hereditary and he lacked his mother’s star power as the longest reigning monarch in the modern era. Such was his commitment to the post-imperial club that in 1986, when a boycott of the Commonwealth Games was threatened by countries which disapproved of Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to economic sanctions against South Africa, Buckingham Palace briefed Downing Street.
The monarchy has been embroiled in skirmishes with the government – but a post-Brexit executive, puffed up in its own power, brushed aside its interventions. King Charles tried this year to push back against the shameful policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda and his son critical the Windrush scandal, which saw hundreds of Commonwealth citizens wrongfully detained and deported. Both monarch and heir recognized the evil and legacy of slavery. But both have avoided crossing swords with the government by apologizing – for fear, no doubt, of opening the door to reparations. A monarch should not meddle in politics, even for the right reasons.
It also exposes the Commonwealth’s weakness. Its leader has been unable to move policy in a progressive direction in the UK, let alone elsewhere. The post-imperial illusion of British politics was exposed when Boris Johnson failed to oust the Commonwealth Secretary General. A clumsy, colonial mentality underpins Brexiters’ illusion that the post-imperial club of nations could be a alternative to the European Union. The Commonwealth received more royal attention than the EU – partly because it provided a world stage that justified the pomp and scale of the crown – but both remain unloved in Britain.
The future of the Commonwealth and its purpose are unclear. Whether this materializes or breaks down will depend on the Member States. But they will be watching Britain – aware that it faces its own uncertain future as a wave of dissolution sweeps its shores.