The Future Head of the Commonwealth

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It was announced on Friday, after lobbying for the Queen, that Prince Charles would indeed succeed in his mother’s role as the symbolic head of the Commonwealth of Nations. This may have seemed like quite obvious news, and in many ways, it was. But the position of head of the Commonwealth is not a hereditary one, and some were hoping that, given the many changes that the Commonwealth has seen, a different type of head might be sought.

Here is perhaps why:

The precursor to today’s Commonwealth of Nations was originally established in 1926 through the Balfour Declaration. This declaration established the British Commonwealth whose member nations were 'united by a common allegiance to the crown' – it also emphasised the equal status of the member nations to each other. Originally, the British Commonwealth of Nations (as it was then known) was mostly a tool used to preserve British influence in the increasingly independent Dominions of Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. It preserved this influence by putting the crown at the centre of the organisation so that Britain and its Dominions would stand together due to the sense of unity and duty that the crown demanded. The idea was that the monarchy’s image, symbolism and a sense of duty (remember that the monarch is supposed to be put here by god) would be a more powerful force than the rising nationalism that sought to divide the nations. Much like the thirteen colonies of America, the Dominions were looking for increased autonomy and were slowly but surely forming their own traditions and customs that were distinct from Britain. The success of this mission is debatable. Though dominions have long since disappeared, and though the crown retains a ceremonial role in four of the old dominions it conveys no tangible meaning to their citizens nor to their governments.

  1958 Poster Soviet Propaganda postcard. Translation: "Returning from Egypt. The Anglo-French military intervention to Egypt ended up with a total fiasco. As a result, prestige and political position of the UK and France were weakened, economic difficulties intensified."

1958 Poster Soviet Propaganda postcard. Translation: "Returning from Egypt. The Anglo-French military intervention to Egypt ended up with a total fiasco. As a result, prestige and political position of the UK and France were weakened, economic difficulties intensified."

The Commonwealth has changed much since 1926. WWII brought the slow end of Empire and with it a slew of new countries to join the commonwealth. A distinction is sometimes made between the two waves of entry into the Commonwealth; the New Commonwealth and the Old Commonwealth. The Old Commonwealth can be referred to as the White Commonwealth, which was contrasted by the more diverse New Commonwealth countries of Africa and India, where white settlers were in the minority—contrarily to what was the case in Oceania and North America. The 50s, 60s and 70s saw the Indian Sub-Continent, Africa and the Caribbean decolonised. This new commonwealth was suddenly diversified, and its mission statement forced to evolve. Not many of these new Commonwealth Nations chose to keep the British monarch, feeling a much weaker cultural connection to Britain, its institutions and its Monarchy. Their heads of state and their people instead preferred to go down the route of republicanism – a path laid down by India. In fact, the 50s and 60s were rather muddy years for the Commonwealth. It saw the humiliation of the British during the Suez Crisis and the decline of the British economy – relative to Western Europe. Thus, some of the key benefits of being a member of the commonwealth, such as defence and economic ties, were dampened.

The Singapore Declaration of 1971 was key in the redefinition of the Commonwealth. I was issued at the very first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and established its new fundamental goals:

‘The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace.’

It further added that:

‘These relationships we intend to foster and extend, for we believe that our multi-national association can expand human understanding and understanding among nations, assist in the elimination of discrimination based on differences of race, colour or creed, maintain and strengthen personal liberty, contribute to the enrichment of life for all, and provide a powerful influence for peace among nations.’

On that day the commonwealth was turned into an institution, at least on paper, akin to Amnesty International and the UN. Here after its raison d’être was the promotion of Human Rights, World Peace, the Rule of Law, Democracy, and Freedom of Speech. These values were further solidified by the Harare Declaration of 1991.

It is important to mention, that throughout this period, the Queen has remained the head of the commonwealth – a position that was created as India decided to become a republic but still wanted to remain a commonwealth member. But there is an important caveat to this role; it is not hereditary. Prince Charles, therefore, does not automatically assume the role of head of the Commonwealth. This has not been an issue as Elizabeth has reigned since long before the New Commonwealth properly came into existence. But with time moving on, the question of succession has started brewing, particularly leading up to the 2018 CHOGM.

  King Tupou VI exits the church after his coronation ceremony in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, July 4, 2015.

King Tupou VI exits the church after his coronation ceremony in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, July 4, 2015.

For many, it may seem obvious that Prince Charles should succeed the Queen as head of the commonwealth. But today's commonwealth actually contains 6 monarchies (therefore maybe six different potential heads), those of; Britain, Brunei Darussalam, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and Tonga—as well as many other republican heads of sates. Only 16 out of the 53 (including the UK) share Elizabeth as their monarch – some of whom are very likely to drop the British monarchy upon Charles succession. The majority (32/53) of the commonwealth are republics. A change of head of state would reflect the changing nature of the Commonwealth. A big criticism of the Commonwealth is its imperial and colonial connotations and that the monarch reflects the past not the future. It has also been seen as just another way for the British to exploit her old Empire, by using her influence to gain favourable trade agreements. A point that is more relevant now given Brexit and politicians’ claims that we should look to the Commonwealth for good trade – though good for whom is the question?

A change in head of state could have proven that the British are committed to the Commonwealth’s mission statement – set out in the London and Harare Declarations.

Studies History with Politics at the University of Buckingham