Can the Commonwealth Outlive Its Greatest Champion?

Queen Elizabeth II’s passing comes amid a moment of reckoning for Britain’s colonial past.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in front of Commonwealth flags
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in front of Commonwealth flags
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II speaks at the formal opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Buckingham Palace in London on April 19, 2018 Dominic Lipinski/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign was bookended by periods of great uncertainty about Britain’s role on the world stage. The queen, who died last week at age 96, was coronated in 1953 as the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire, and her death comes as the country reexamines its place in the world amid increasing calls for the United Kingdom to reckon with its colonial history and as republican sentiment gains traction among countries in the Caribbean. 

Elizabeth learned of her father’s death and of her ascension to the throne at the age of 25 while in Kenya while on a monthslong tour of the British Commonwealth in 1952. A decade later, Kenya broke free from British rule as a wave of anti-colonial movements swept across Africa and Asia, and dozens of countries declared their independence from European imperial powers. 

Many newly independent members of the former British Empire remained loosely knitted together in the Commonwealth of Nations, which was founded 1949 as a voluntary association of counties with shared histories and economic ties as former members of the empire. At its inception, the Commonwealth was intended to largely promote democracy, peace, and economic development across its member states. While it has proved a valuable diplomatic forum, particularly for smaller nations, it has primarily remained a cultural forum, as its political and economic importance was quickly eclipsed by other international organizations founded in the wake of World War II. “The Commonwealth has really not reached its potential,” said Cindy McCreery, a historian of the British Empire at the University of Sydney. 

Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign was bookended by periods of great uncertainty about Britain’s role on the world stage. The queen, who died last week at age 96, was coronated in 1953 as the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire, and her death comes as the country reexamines its place in the world amid increasing calls for the United Kingdom to reckon with its colonial history and as republican sentiment gains traction among countries in the Caribbean. 

Elizabeth learned of her father’s death and of her ascension to the throne at the age of 25 while in Kenya while on a monthslong tour of the British Commonwealth in 1952. A decade later, Kenya broke free from British rule as a wave of anti-colonial movements swept across Africa and Asia, and dozens of countries declared their independence from European imperial powers. 

Many newly independent members of the former British Empire remained loosely knitted together in the Commonwealth of Nations, which was founded 1949 as a voluntary association of counties with shared histories and economic ties as former members of the empire. At its inception, the Commonwealth was intended to largely promote democracy, peace, and economic development across its member states. While it has proved a valuable diplomatic forum, particularly for smaller nations, it has primarily remained a cultural forum, as its political and economic importance was quickly eclipsed by other international organizations founded in the wake of World War II. “The Commonwealth has really not reached its potential,” said Cindy McCreery, a historian of the British Empire at the University of Sydney. 

It has served as a powerful vehicle for British soft power and diplomacy. The queen took a deep, personal interest in the Commonwealth throughout her reign, making over 200 visits to member states. 

“It meant everything, really,” said Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. “It was what made her special as a European monarch, having that dual role as sovereign of over a dozen realms around the world and head of the Commonwealth.”

In many of the newly independent countries that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s, it was the more moderate leaders of anti-colonial movements who initially came to power, and they saw a benefit in remaining on good terms with the U.K. “Many of them felt like good friendship, continued friendship with the former ruler of their countries—which now had to make good on all the big claims they had made about what they would be able to do if only they were independent—was valuable,” said Priya Satia, a Stanford University historian of the British Empire. “The Commonwealth allowed former colonies like India to perform their ‘equality’ in cricket and other athletic contests.”

There were also geopolitical perks to membership. In the early years after the organization’s founding, the global south found itself caught in the struggle for power between the Soviet Union and the United States. In a 1955 speech, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru urged newly independent states not to align with either major power. 

“The Commonwealth provided a sense of stability and of course, in the Cold War era, it was a deliberate alternative to the polarizing politics of NATO versus the Eastern Bloc,” McCreery said. 

In a speech to mark her coronation in 1953, the queen gave thanks to the Commonwealth and empire “of societies old and new, of lands and races different in history and origins but all, by God’s will, united in spirit and in aim.” The Commonwealth remained a top priority throughout her reign and beyond, lobbying the organization to ensure that her son, now King Charles III, could assume the symbolic role of head of the Commonwealth after her death. 

During the wave of independence movements in the 1960s, the queen made a concerted effort to reach out to the leaders of the new states. In 1961, four years after Ghana declared its independence from the British Empire, Elizabeth traveled there, where she danced with the country’s Marxist president at a reception held in her honor, in an era when it was still unusual to see images of a white woman dancing with a Black man, McCreery said. 

“That was really a very deliberate signal of her efforts to really make members of the Commonwealth populations feel that they were in a group or organization that, in theory at least, saw every member as on equal terms with other members,” she said. 

Despite studiously keeping her political opinions to herself, the queen was reportedly at odds with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to imposing sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime, which made Britain the only holdout among Commonwealth nations. According to documents declassified in 2017, Elizabeth was so incensed over Thatcher’s decision, fearing it could damage “her” Commonwealth, that she contemplated canceling her weekly meetings with the prime minister. The queen went on to develop a warm friendship with South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela. 

In many ways, the Commonwealth eased the transition from a colonial relationship to a family of nations, as the organization now describes itself, but it also delayed a reckoning with the more brutal aspects of British colonial rule and slavery. “For a long time it was the elephant in the room; there was almost a compact of forgetting among Britain and first-generation Commonwealth leaders,” said Murphy of the University of London. 

It’s only in more recent years, as new generations have emerged, that calls for a greater reckoning with the full legacy of the British Empire have grown both in the U.K. and in members of the Commonwealth. “What happened that’s unfortunate is that nothing was clarified. Are these countries free or not? Are they Republics or are they monarchies, is the empire over or not?” Satia said. 

In recent years, the Caribbean has seen a growing republican movement, in part driven by the global reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer, in the United States in 2020. Of the 14 countries beyond the U.K. where the British monarch is still recognized as head of state, six Caribbean countries have indicated hopes of becoming republics. Last year, Barbados declared itself a republic but opted to remain in the Commonwealth; Antigua and Barbuda are expected to hold a referendum on the matter within the next three years, the country’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne said on Saturday. 

“This is not an act of hostility or any difference between Antigua and Barbuda and the monarchy, but it is the final step to complete that circle of independence, to ensure that we are truly a sovereign nation,” he told the British broadcaster ITV. 

Charles assumes the ceremonial role as head of the Commonwealth as both the U.K. and the other 55 member states are increasingly reexamining the colonial roots of the organization. During a speech in Barbados last year, as the country became a republic, Charles acknowledged the “appalling atrocity of slavery” that “forever stains British history.” 

While the Commonwealth, which represents almost one-third of the world’s population, has grappled with its purpose at times, smaller island nations that are already experiencing the consequences of climate change are likely to find a powerful advocate in the new king, who has a deep and long-standing interest in protecting the environment. At the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, he called for a “vast military-style campaign” to marshal the resources of the private sector in the fight against climate change. 

The Commonwealth could also serve as a natural vehicle for conversations about Britain’s colonial legacy and reparations.

“If you have to think of what the Commonwealth could be useful for, paradoxically that’s one area where the Commonwealth would be the logical framework for discussion about colonial legacy issues, because it’s something that its members have in common,” Murphy said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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