- The British monarch is head of state of 14 independent countries.
- Several are considering cutting ties with the crown now that Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is over.
- Scandals and passage of time have diminished monarchy’s standing, especially among younger people.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s eyes grew teary and his voice cracked with emotion as he informed his fellow countrymen of the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
“Canada is in mourning,” he said solemnly. “She was one of my favorite people in the world.”
Many Americans may not realize it, but Canada is still tied to the British monarchy. Queen Elizabeth served as Canada’s head of state for nearly half of its time as a country and remained a popular figure among Canadians right up until her death on Sept. 8 at age 96.
Her popularity, however, did not translate to the monarchy itself. Fifty-eight percent of Canadians polled by Ipsos just a few days after the queen’s death said the time has come for Canada to hold a referendum on ending its formal ties to the British throne.
It’s not just the Canadians who are rethinking their connection to the crown. The queen’s death also raises questions about the future of the Commonwealth, an association of 56 countries that include the 14 in which the British monarch remains their head of state. Calls for them to break away and form a republic are likely to spread now that the queen’s reign has ended and her eldest son, King Charles III, has ascended to the throne, analysts said.
“Her absence, combined with recent developments in British politics, gives these countries certainly an opening, even perhaps an impetus, to start thinking about breaking away,” said Mark Vail, an expert on British politics and history at Wake Forest University.
The Commonwealth won’t collapse tomorrow, said Sue Onslow, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, but “the processes of change are accelerating.”
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‘Just the beginning’
For many, change is long overdue.
In the countries over which she reigned as head of state, the queen’s rule was mostly ceremonial. She had no role in the day-to-day operations of government. Those decisions were left to those countries’ prime ministers and parliaments. But countries pay membership dues to the Commonwealth that go not to the monarchy but to the entity that runs the organization.
Still, leaders of several of those independent countries chafed at being under the monarch’s eye even though, personally, she was viewed favorably.
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Last November, Barbados officially ended nearly 400 years of British rule when it removed Queen Elizabeth as its head of state and swore in its own president in a ceremony in which Prince Charles – now King Charles III – was the guest of honor.
The queen’s grandson, Prince William, and his wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, were met with protests and calls for slavery reparations last spring when they embarked upon a tour of Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, informed the couple that his country would be moving ahead with its plans to ditch the monarchy and become a republic. Belize also signaled its intentions to break from the crown.
Just days after the queen’s death, Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told Britain’s ITV News that within three years he plans to hold a referendum on his country ditching the crown and becoming a republic.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she believes her country will eventually become a republic but stressed that she doesn’t see it happening anytime soon. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who favors replacing the monarchy with a local head of state, said last week that he would hold off “out of respect for the queen” and would not pursue a referendum on the matter unless he is re-elected.
“I think the noises that have been made by certain countries (to break from the crown) are just the beginning,” Vail said.
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‘The symbol of stability and continuity’
During her 70-year reign, the longest in British history, Queen Elizabeth was able to hold the Commonwealth together because she was seen as the symbol of stability and continuity, Vail said.
King Charles, however, doesn’t engender the same reverence as his mother. “Those are hard shoes to fill for Charles,” Vail said.
Some of the monarchy’s diminished standing is generational. Younger people don’t feel the same connection to the crown as their elders did, Onslow said.
“Older generations still have a sense of essential links and ties and appreciation of connectivity with the queen,” she said. “But that is now, of course, going to be dissipating.”
Politic events – in Britain and across the world – are also a big factor.
The U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union – or Brexit, as it’s known – diminished Britain’s stature on the international stage and caused some other countries to question the value of staying attached to the crown, Vail said.
“Britain, by divorcing itself from the European Union, and in particular the shambolic way in which that was undertaken and the increasingly evident costs of that decision, has undermined the power and the prestige” of the crown, he said.
Other events such as the death of King Charles’ first wife, Princess Diana; the sex scandal swirling around his brother, Prince Andrew; and the decision by his youngest son, Prince Harry, and wife Meghan to give up their royal titles and duties and move to America further dimmed the public’s view of the monarchy, Vail said.
The Black Lives Matter movement that started in the United States also resonated in some former British colonies looking to separate themselves from the crown and who feel Britain hasn’t confronted the legacy of racism of its colonial history.
“There is a lot of anger in certain Caribbean countries over what is seen as the monarchy’s refusal to engage with its past,” Onslow said.
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‘An international brand’
Yet even as some countries are looking to break their ties with Britain, others have recently entered the fold.
Gabon and Togo, both former French colonies, were admitted to the Commonwealth earlier this year. Rwanda, which was never part of the British empire, joined the organization in 2009.
Rwanda may have been attracted to the organization as a way to have more visibility on the world stage, especially as it sought be known internationally for more than a genocide that occurred there in 1994, said Patrick Vernon, a racial equality campaigner whose book “100 Great Black Britons” was published in the U.S. in 2021.
“All countries want to be part of a wider network,” he said. The Commonwealth, he said, “is an international brand that many countries want to be associated with.”
Vernon, who grew up and lives in the U.K. but whose parents are from Jamaica, said that in Africa and the Caribbean the Commonwealth is “well-regarded” overall as an institution that brings economic and political clout to member-organizations.
In the wake of Brexit, however, some have started to question whether the U.K. is as well-placed to help Commonwealth members strengthen their governance models, facilitate development and promote human rights, he said.
He noted that a recent attempt by the British government to transfer refugees who had traveled to the U.K. from Syria, Iraq and other places to Rwanda appeared to be a step backward.
King Charles, meanwhile, has his work cut out for him as more countries contemplate a future separate from the crown, Vail said.
While an argument can be made for holding the Commonwealth together in the interests of continuity, “I think that path becomes increasingly difficult with time,” he said. “I’m certain that his advisers are now thinking very carefully about how and to the extent to which he should broach that subject.”
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.