Should Queen Elizabeth be the last head of the Commonwealth?
It’s Jubilee Year and of all Queen Elizabeth II’s many achievements, the one she’s most proud of is her devotion to the Commonwealth. As her Diamond Days shine on until the end of 2012, the question of whether the heir apparent, Prince Charles, will take over on the monarch’s death as head of the 54-nation Commonwealth has become a topic for political and historical debate, says TREVOR GRUNDY, CJA-UK member.
THE QUESTION of whether the British royal family should continue to head the Commonwealth after the death of Queen Elizabeth II was raised on 18 April 2012 during a debate organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association at Westminster Hall, London.
While the Queen has been – and continues to be – an outstanding Head of the Commonwealth since she came to the throne in 1952, “the Commonwealth might be well advised to look outside the House of Windsor for its next head,” said a former BBC Court Correspondent, Michael Cole.
Claiming that the roles of constitutional monarch (in Britain) and Head of the Commonwealth “are far from compatible,” Cole said that an election of a new head would make the Commonwealth more relevant and would enhance its influence in the world.
Chairing the session, which raised important issues about an organization whose work is little known in Britain, the Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, Vijay Krishnarayan, said the debate was important and that it coincided with on-going discussions about a possible Commonwealth Charter aimed at strengthening respect for human rights across large parts of the world.
Now, two Commonwealth academicians, Professor Philip Murphy and Daisy Cooper, have stepped into the arena and said that the interests of the Commonwealth would be best served (after the death of the Queen) if the post of Head of the Commonwealth was abolished altogether.
Professor Murphy is Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICS) and Professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London.
Daisy Cooper is the Director of the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau, a think-tank based at the ICS in London.
In a paper published by the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau entitled Queen Elizabeth Should Be the Final Head of the Commonwealth on 12
July the authors say that “lurking beneath the surface of the current celebrations of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is a nagging anxiety: what happens next?
It adds: “Nowhere is this more acute than in Commonwealth circles. The future of the headship of the Commonwealth is in doubt. Should it pass to her heir, Prince Charles? Dig a little deeper and you will encounter off-the-record expressions of doubts about Charles’s suitability. Amid the rather awkward and embarrassed murmurings that pass for debate on this issue, the cases for and against Charles inheriting the headship have barely been explored or discussed.”
Murphy and Cooper then set out the arguments for and against Charles ‘taking over’ from the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.
When she came to the throne, it was nine members strong.
Now, 60 years later, it numbers 54.
As well as being Head of State for the United Kingdom, she is the Head of State for 15 Commonwealth realms though, as Murphy and Cooper say in their paper, “republicanism has become the default position across the Commonwealth and the death of the Queen is likely to reawaken this issue in some of the remaining realms.”
Debate about the headship goes back some time but is rarely mentioned in the columns of most British or Commonwealth newspapers.
But on the eve of a television series to mark the Queen’s 60th anniversary as monarch, Commonwealth writer and observer Derek Ingram said that it was timely to recall the all-important London Declaration that created the Commonwealth which Ingram insists it is still a young
“The Declaration,” wrote Ingram, “was agreed in 1949 at a meeting in 10 Downing Street of leaders of the eight Commonwealth countries which were then independent. It enabled India to retain its membership as a republic, creating the title Head of the Commonwealth and conferring it on King George VI.”
Ingram said a common assumption is that ‘the headship’ is vested in the British monarchy. But that is not so.
“Under the 1949 Declaration, it was vested in the person of the King (George VI). He was accepted as the symbol of the free association and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.”
King George VI died three years later. When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, pre-empted any discussion by sending Elizabeth a message within hours of her accession in 1952 “welcoming Your Majesty as the new Head of the Commonwealth.”
But, stated Ingram, “the London Declaration laid nothing down about the duties of the Head of the Commonwealth. He or she is simply the ‘symbol’.”
Over the decades, Queen Elizabeth II has created her own role and done so with success.
Since the start of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings in 1971 she has attended all but one (she did not go to Singapore in 1971 on the advice of Prime Minister Edward Heath). Her presence was especially felt at the Lusaka CHOGM in 1979 which effectively paved the way for the end of all-white rule in Southern Rhodesia and shepherded in Zimbabwe’s independence in April 1980.
Ingram said in his article: “When the time comes, all Commonwealth countries will need to consult” and that after the Queen’s death it is possible the idea of a rotating head will be floated.
Opinion polls showed that most people – in India as many as 50 per cent – favoured that solution.
The contribution made to debate on this now hard-to-avoid question of ‘headship’ by Professor Murphy and Daisy Cooper is immense. Their paper should be read by anyone whose heart is close to an organisation that links different races and religions at a time when these subjects are explosive.
Many in the Commonwealth would like to see Prince Charles take over from his mother and the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau document states that it is “profoundly unfair” to accuse the Prince of Wales of failing to take an interest in the Commonwealth, adding: “It also should not be surprising that since the early 1980s he has chosen (instead) to concentrate on a number of largely domestic issues over which his mother’s shadow does not loom so large.”
Say Murphy/Cooper: “The question of whether Charles inherits the headship should not be determined by personal considerations. Arguments for him inheriting the headship rest on:
The continuing need for a ceremonial head;
A historical interpretation behind the London Declaration;
The importance of the headship in ensuring that all Commonwealth countries, including the UK, continue to support the organization.
They add, however, that it would be “stretching the definition of the word to describe any member of the royal family as ‘charismatic’ but that Elizabeth II most certainly had invested the headship with the charisma of office.
“Her son has the capacity to do the same,” the authors state.
But there are weighty arguments against such an inheritance.
“The young people of the Commonwealth member states have a thirst for more and better democracy,” they argue. “The continued use of a hereditary monarch to symbolize the Commonwealth association does not sit well with this democratic aspiration.”
And then this: “It is arguable that Charles would not merely be an unsuitable symbol but a positively harmful one, reinforcing the prejudice that the Commonwealth is merely a throwback to Empire.”
So, what would sit well, is the question.
Perhaps nothing at all, is the answer.
“Indeed,” say the authors, “it is our strong view, that the interests of the Commonwealth would be best served if the post of Head of the Commonwealth was abolished at the end of Her Majesty’s reign.”
Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked as a reporter in central,
eastern and southern Africa from 1966-1996.