The UK Could Face A Complicated Disentanglement From The Commonwealth
Commonwealth flags outside parliament | Alamy
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2nd June 1953, she officially became head of state of not only the United Kingdom but of dozens of Commonwealth realms across the world, including Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. But when King Charles III is crowned on 6th May 2023 — as announced early last week — he will be tasked with holding what’s left of the Commonwealth together.
In 2021, Barbados left the Commonwealth to become a republic, announcing that “the time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind.” That left 14 remaining Commonwealth realms: Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and Antigua and Barbuda.
Earlier this year, Jamaica, alongside Antigua and Barbuda, announced their intentions to hold referenda on whether they should remain Commonwealth realms. This proposal followed an uncomfortable Commonwealth tour earlier this year where the now Prince and Princess of Wales William and Kate were met with signs saying, “Kings, Queens and Princesses and Princes belong in Fairytales Not in Jamaica.”
Commonwealth membership is also high on the agenda in Australia, where recently elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has floated the possibility of a referendum on whether they should become a republic within the next few years. Since taking office he has appointed Labor Party MP Matt Thistlethwaite to the newly created position of Assistant Minister for the Republic.
The UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth is complicated.
Prior to the Act of the Union that created the United Kingdom in 1707, England held colonies in the Caribbean which were mainly populated by enslaved Africans. Some of the enslaved were branded with the initials “DY,” highlighting that they were the property of the Duke of York (King James II of England).
Over the next few centuries, Britain would gain several colonies across the world and, at its height, ruled an Empire of over 400 million people.
“Britain has always had colonies,” Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper, Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Greenwich and a contributor to Empire’s Endgame: Racism And The British State, told PoliticsHome.
It was in 1884 when Lord Roseberry, who later served as Prime Minister, became the first person to describe the British Empire as a “Commonwealth of Nations”.
Several British subjects rebelled against imperial rule. These included those involved in the 1952-60 Mau Mau uprising, thousands of which were detained and abused in British detention camps in colonial Kenya. When survivors sued the British government in 2009, it was revealed that the British government had destroyed some of the documents detailing abuses that went on in colonial Kenya, and other parts of the British Empire, so as to avoid future embarrassment.
Many historians say that 1997, when the British ceded Hong Kong to China, was when the British Empire, the largest Empire in world history, came to an end. Despite the end of Empire, several former colonies elected to remain as Commonwealth realms, asserting their independence while retaining the British monarch as their head of state. Several also joined the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary political association of 56 independent states.
Over the past few years, debates have re-emerged as to what future relationships between the crown and the Commonwealth realms should look like. Many communities of colour in the UK, who are descended from former British colonial subjects, have been discussing and debating their relationship with the Crown too.
A recent YouGov survey indicates that 43 per cent of British ethnic minorities consider the Royal Family to be racist. When the then-Prince Charles guest edited an issue of The Voice, Britain’s oldest Black newspaper, earlier this year, The Voice faced considerable backlash for, in the words of one former contributor, standing with “personifications of oppression and suppression”.
Jasvir Singh OBE, a barrister and co-founder of South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM), an organisation founded in 2020 to promote and celebrate South Asian cultures in Britain, says that these debates show we urgently need a national conversation about “what it means to be British today".
He told PoliticsHome we need to allow people space to talk about "monarchy, about identity, about colonialism, so that we can have some sort of better understanding of what each of us think and feel and why”.
SAHM caused considerable consternation among some British South Asians when, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September, they wrote an Instagram post saying that “South Asian cultures are taught from childhood to revere and respect their teachers, elders, and parents. Her Majesty the Queen represented them all for many.” This prompted many of their followers question the sentiment in the comments. “Why are you caping for colonialism & empire?” one follower wrote.
After their post went viral, former SAHM trustee Ruby Bukhari announced her resignation on Twitter, declaring that “Queenie isn’t my teacher, elder or parent.”
In response to the backlash, SAHM released another statement, a few days after the controversy, acknowledging that “British South Asians are not a monolith. We hold differing views and are all processing the death of the Queen in different ways”.
Singh, speaking in a personal capacity, says that “nuance is important. And nuance is difficult to get across on social media”.
While some British South Asians have a negative view of the Royal Family, Singh, who identifies as a “Punjabi, Sikh, British-born, Londoner through and through,” has a different view formed partly by an experience visiting Jallianwala Bagh, the site of a 1919 colonial massacre.
“I went there in 2010 with a friend of mine who can trace his British lineage back to the Norman invasion of 1066. When I went there with him I had a different lens, which was – my people killed my people. The British Army killed these Indian civilians.”
Grappling with this, he questions the “equation of the Royal family = Empire = colony = murder. It just seems to be such a huge jump. I can appreciate why the crown is seen to be representative of it means to be colonial. But that's a head of state that has no power”.
However, Dr Meghan Campbell, a Reader in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, of Canadian descent, disagrees. “The British Monarchy holds itself out as a symbol of many different things – a symbol of Britishness, as well as a symbol of empire,” she told PoliticsHome.
For some British people of colour though, the British Crown is worthy of respect. A Sri Lankan woman and a Ghanaian woman were among the first in the queue to see the Queen's coffin lying in state at Westminster Hall.
Dr Elliot-Cooper suggests that this may be indicative of a generational divide. “A thing that’s a bit more specific to the Black community, is this idea of respectability, particularly among older people," he said.
"Migrating from the Caribbean, or the African continent, to Britain, attempting to fit in, to integrate, to be accepted, to survive and to thrive within British society meant that a lot of these colonial migrants adopted a kind of a culture of respectability, of trying to adopt what they perceived to be uniquely British values and customs, and morals.”
In the 14 remaining Commonwealth realms, a similarly nuanced debate about the Royal Family and colonialism is ongoing. While some want to leave the Commonwealth, others would like their states to remain so as to ensure access to human rights protections.
Explaining, Dr Campbell says that “in some parts of the Commonwealth the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is still the last court of appeal”. These countries include Antigua and Barbuda, a death penalty country where same-sex marriage is illegal.
While the Privy Council may not always concede to arguments put forward by progressive activists – earlier this year, the Privy Council ruled in favour of Bermuda’s ban on same-sex marriage –some activists want to remain in the Commonwealth to ensure the Privy Council remains the “last court of resort so that death penalty measures could be struck down and that anti-LGBT measures could be struck down. You might be someone who’s deeply anti-colonial, but fervently believe that there should not be a death penalty – you’re in a bit of a bind”.
Others in the Commonwealth are more concerned about reparations than Commonwealth membership. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission have set out a 10-point reparation action plan for European governments, including Britain, to provide reparatory justice for “genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid”.
Within CARICOM, some Commonwealth realms have been particularly vocal, with the Bahamas National Reparations Committee writing an open letter earlier this year calling for the “family of royals and their government” to “acknowledge that their diverse economy was built on the backs of our ancestors”.
In 2021, the Australian government committed to giving some monetary reparations to some indigenous communities for abuses that took place in Empire. However, there are calls for the British Royal Family to provide reparatory justice too.
“First Nations people in the Commonwealth should be receiving their deserved reparations for land and lives taken at the direction of the Crown,” Thalia Anthony, Professor of Law at the Sydney University of Technology told PoliticsHome.
As these debates continue, it appears that King Charles III, who has previously talked of “the close and trusted partnership between Commonwealth members,” faces a challenge if he wants to prevent this trust from further fading.
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