In the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing last week, much has been made of her personal affection for not only the people of Britain but also all her subjects spread among the members of the Commonwealth. Her very first televised Christmas broadcast in 1957 was set against the transition of the British Empire to the Commonwealth of Nations and described how she took “pride in the new Commonwealth we are building.” Following her death, this personal commitment to the Commonwealth has been highlighted as a mark of the generosity of the queen’s spirit: that her investment in these distant remnants of former British rule held the institution together by sheer force of will.
As a result, her successor, King Charles III, will ascend to the throne as the head of state for 14 Commonwealth realms too, stretching from Canada to Australia, Jamaica to Papua New Guinea. But barely days into his reign, murmurs of a mass exodus from the Commonwealth club are already stalking the new king. Professor Philip Murphy, the former director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, has argued that several countries in the Commonwealth could make “a rush for the door” over the coming years. Will Charles oversee the final disintegration of this remnant of empire?
To think about the Commonwealth’s place in the modern world, it is important to consider what the institution is. The transition from the British Empire to Commonwealth implied that the hierarchy between Britain and its colonies would dissipate with independence. Now each state would be equal to each, sharing sovereignty, status, and wealth in common. But older divisions of geography, race, and economic power continued to slice through this “family of nations.” Think of the differences in movement and access enjoyed by the different people of the Commonwealth. In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigration Act was passed by the Conservative government, which ended the automatic right of people from the British colonies and Commonwealth to settle in the U.K. Though it made all Commonwealth citizens subject to possible immigration control, the target of this law was not white people coming from New Zealand or Australia. Conservative Home Secretary Rab Butler said that the act’s “great merit” was that it looked like it would apply to all parts of the Commonwealth, when in reality its “restrictive effect is intended to, and would in fact, operate on coloured people almost exclusively.” Commonwealth migration came to mean only people migrating from Africa, South Asia, or the Caribbean, not places like Canada, and was discussed by Conservative politicians as a new specter haunting Britain. Enoch Powell, a prominent Conservative member of Parliament, argued that this migration would give rise to “rivers of blood” flowing across the nation, and in his wake, Margaret Thatcher described her fear that with increasing Commonwealth migration, Britain was being “swamped by people with a different culture.” This was not the rhetoric with which the queen liked to suggest that the people of Nigeria, Sri Lanka, or Trinidad and Tobago were family.
Commonwealth countries also carried an array of different sovereignty positions. Some countries are Crown Dependencies, some are British Overseas Territories, and some are independent nation states. These differing statuses have a significant effect not only on their communality but also their wealth. According to a 2019 index produced by the Tax Justice Network, the world’s three most corrosive corporate tax havens are all British Overseas Territories, with the British Virgin Islands topping the list, closely followed by Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. These tax havens are often presented in the media as strange foreign hideouts for dirty money, but they are all ruled by a British governor who represents the crown, carries the final say on the law and, every year leads the celebration of the queen’s birthday in a manner that resurrects the era of the old British West Indies. This subgroup within the Commonwealth lies at the forefront of global offshore wealth, home to some of the strongest secrecy and tax exemption laws in the world. The appeal of these jurisdictions to the world’s oligarchs lies in their close connection to Britain, while also remaining one step removed. By remaining under the patronage of British sovereignty, maintaining aspects like Charles as the head of state and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as their highest court, these offshore jurisdictions are able to present themselves as part of the long history of English financial and legal expertise, not simply grubby secret money dens.
This more nefarious side of a number of nations that make up the Commonwealth is ignored in sepia-tinged narratives about an old family of nations. But it points us to a material aspect of Britain’s investment in the remnants of empire. This isn’t just about sporting games and cultural exchanges. As well as inheriting Charles as their head of state, a number of Commonwealth countries also will have his Privy Council as their highest court of appeal. The Privy Council, a rather shadowy institution that is home to the formal advisers to the monarch of the U.K., is one of the last routes through which the power of Britain’s ruling king or queen can still be exercised. One of the Privy Council’s roles is to hear legal cases from an array of overseas territories and Commonwealth countries through the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which was once the final court of appeal of the British Empire. The JCPC was created by an 1833 act of Parliament, and was the place where legal issues that arose in the British colonies came to be resolved. This meant that, in theory, all subjects from every corner of the British Empire had the right to appeal directly to the reigning British monarch. Even today, in ostensibly independent countries like Jamaica and the Bahamas, if you have a legal dispute, in theory your final hope of resolving it will be a direct appeal to King Charles III. This functional, legal element of the legacy of British rule across some territories of the Commonwealth shows that the questions being asked in this debate concern more that the “symbolic” role of the monarchy.
The change in monarch comes at an auspicious time for the Commonwealth, as a number of countries—including Jamaica and Australia—had already been making moves toward removing the queen as head of state, and these calls are likely only to grow now she is being succeeded by her less popular son. Barbados already transitioned into a parliamentary republic in 2021, lighting the way for other Caribbean countries that want to follow in its wake. As the protests that greeted Prince William and his wife, Kate, on their tour of the region showed, republican feelings are very much on the rise in the once trusty British West Indies. Meanwhile, much of the British public has only a vague idea of what the Commonwealth actually is. In the past, polls have shown that one in five Brits couldn’t name a single Commonwealth country when asked. Not Jamaica, not India, not even Australia.
For a certain strain of the British population, the loss of the Commonwealth sounds like good news. Politicians like Enoch Powell called for Britain to cut ties with former colonies after independence and not engage with the Commonwealth system that came afterward. To them, the Commonwealth was a sham, a way for colonies to keep riding on the motherland’s coattails without paying the due respect. This attitude, of course, overlooks the vast material benefits that Britain has extracted from them. Back in 2002, Boris Johnson wrote about Africa, arguing that “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.” This quote came back to haunt him when he later became prime minister and sought to establish trading relationships with the countries in the region with which Britain had “historical ties.” Johnson expressed a desire to turn the Commonwealth from a “great family of nations into a free trade zone” after Brexit.
Perhaps, like the government officials who nicknamed the plan for Britain’s role in the world after Brexit “Empire 2.0,” Johnson forgot that for many Commonwealth countries, the Commonwealth might not hold the same romantic evocations of the nineteenth century as it did for him. This is a lesson that might be in store for the new king as well, if he expects his tenure over the Commonwealth to be as smooth as that of his predecessors.