Under King Charles, the future of the Commonwealth looks uncertain
- While fractures have long existed in the group of former British territories, they were more or less held together by the unifying power of Queen Elizabeth
- As Charles takes on the hereditary role of head of the Commonwealth, many members will again question the value of the group and the legitimacy of its figurehead
The Commonwealth of Nations, a group of 56 member states comprising mostly former territories of the British Empire, is home to 2.5 billion people – a third of the global population – and represents US$13.1 trillion in gross domestic product. The group also hosts 32 of the world’s smallest 42 states.
The Commonwealth dates back to a meeting in 1926 between Britain’s King George V – grandfather of Elizabeth – and the leaders of the United Kingdom and six Dominions (semi-independent territories that had the British monarch as head of state), where it was agreed that each country should be regarded as autonomous and equal. The declaration was made official in 1931.
In 1949, the Commonwealth was updated to allow nations that wanted to become republics, like India, to keep their membership, leading to its current configuration.
Although the Commonwealth was formed to create unity among former and current British territories, it remains a symbol of Britain’s colonial history. For many, it is a reminder of the economic inequality that exists among former British colonies. As former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said in 2015, “the ‘wealth’ is not ‘common’ at all, it belongs to only four members and the rest are poor”.
The group is facing mounting challenges. For one, there are ideological differences between member nations that date back to the period of colonial rule.
Second, in more recent decades, nations have prioritised other international groupings – both economic and regional – that promised greater diplomatic and economic value, reducing the Commonwealth’s importance.
Third, movement within the Commonwealth has become more restricted since Britain introduced visas, discouraging the notion of a “common wealth”.
Indeed, the queen – the longest-reigning monarch in British history – was a powerful symbol of Commonwealth unity among its leaders. King Charles faces a challenging task in keeping the Commonwealth together.
This transition, although only ceremonial, is not voted on by the citizens of these realms, raising issues of legitimacy in democratic countries that include a G7 member (Canada) and a G20 nation (Australia).
While the Commonwealth realms retained the British monarch as their head of state during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, they might not choose to do the same for King Charles. The new king has had his fair share of episodes that could make Commonwealth realm leaders uncomfortable.
Should the Commonwealth realms renounce the British monarchy, there is a high possibility that other member nations will gradually lose interest in the group.
As the new head of the Commonwealth, King Charles must work hard to restore the faith of member nations of the Commonwealth, address the long-held grievances of former British colonies, and make his role in the Commonwealth meaningful, not just ceremonial.
The British crown can expect more scrutiny as it moves beyond the Elizabethan era. The new king must be prepared for an uphill struggle.
Professor Syed Munir Khasru is chairman of the international think tank IPAG Asia Pacific, Australia, with a presence in Dhaka, Delhi, Vienna and Dubai