When Queen Elizabeth took the throne at the tender age of 25, the sun was only just beginning to set on the British Empire.
Now, as she is laid to rest, the monarchy’s dominion is less vast and the allegiance of her subjects more voluntary — but it is still globe-spanning. At her death, Queen Elizabeth was the head of state in 15 countries and the ceremonial head of the much wider Commonwealth, presiding over 2.5 billion people from Canada to Australia, Jamaica to Ghana, Pakistan to Fiji.
But as her septuagenarian son King Charles III takes over, the prospects for holding together this vast realm look grim.
The colonies over which the House of Windsor once ruled are now the Commonwealth, a loose collection of 56 member states that occasionally benefit from the British state. But many are restless, and the loyalty and respect that their governments pledged toward Elizabeth will be tested by a new monarch who is more political and less regal.
“The reason why so many countries have remained within the group [is that] they didn’t want to offend her,” said Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute with a specialty in the United Kingdom. “Countries have stayed on, remained with the status of having her as head of state much longer than they would have because they felt so much loyalty to her personally.”
Take Australia, which has for decades rumbled with republican sentiment. Though a 1999 referendum on whether to replace the monarchy with a president was defeated, the newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this year appointed the country’s first minister to lead the transition to become a republic.
With the queen now gone and replaced by the far less adored King Charles III, Republicans in Australia are readying for a replay of the referendum. However, that’s unlikely to happen in the short term, as Albanese pledged in his election campaign earlier this year that he would not hold a referendum on a republic until his second term in office — assuming he wins one — likely putting a vote four to five years away.
Before that, Aussies will be balloted on a more urgent question: In its first term, the Albanese government promised to hold a referendum on the “voice to parliament” — a body to be enshrined in the Australian constitution that would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to provide advice to the parliament and government.
In neighboring New Zealand, a recent poll found that the majority favor keeping ties to the monarchy even after the queen’s death, though Prime Minister Jacinda Arden acknowledged that New Zealand would likely move to become a republic “within my lifetime.”
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute to the queen on Thursday as “one of my favorite people in the world,” but his nation doesn’t have the same affection for her son. A 2021 poll from the non-profit Angus Reid Institute found that only 34 percent of respondents would support King Charles remaining head of state.
The Republican trend is moving in only one direction; it’s just a matter or when. Barbados became a republic in 2021, and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced his country would also seek to “become an independent” nation during the visit of the queen’s grandson Prince William earlier this year.
The mourning period — and widespread affection — for the queen will put a temporary freeze on efforts to cut the cord.
Tom Freda, the national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, declined to comment on next steps until after the queen’s state funeral in just over a week, though the organization put out a statement noting that the queen was “on record as having sympathy” for republican sentiments. Campaign group New Zealand Republic took a similar stance, expressing “condolences” for the royal family in a statement, and declining to make any further public comment until after the funeral.
But the honeymoon for King Charles will be short, and he will soon have to cement his rule and win the affection his mother won over seven decades. There are some positive signs, however.
The Commonwealth has a waiting list to join that includes South Sudan and Suriname, both former British colonies. The process to join the voluntary association can take years, and includes being willing to acknowledge the king as the ceremonial head of the organization.
Critics argue that it’s hard to see the value: The group’s operations and funding for programs around the world are funded by member states, and the United Kingdom in 2020 contributed just £5 million.
“The Commonwealth is a community of like-minded nations, countries that used to be part of the British Empire,” Braw said. “It’s really a community of friendships between nations … the only material benefit is being asked to compete in the Commonwealth Games.”
It was a group about which the queen was passionate, pledging to give her “heart and soul every day of life” to the Commonwealth in a 1953 speech.
“You cannot exaggerate enough the importance of the Queen to the Commonwealth, she has made it her life’s work to support the Commonwealth,” said Sue Onslow, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. “She has been the international organization’s absolutely devoted champion.”
Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland paid tribute to the queen on Thursday, noting that the queen had only missed one annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting between 1971 and 2018.
“The growth and vibrancy of our modern Commonwealth is a credit to her and testament to her dedication, wisdom and leadership,” Scotland said.
King Charles becoming her successor as the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth was not automatic, however. Leaders of Commonwealth countries formally acknowledged him as heir in 2018, following the queen expressing her “sincere wish” this would occur.
Charles might have more success in leading the Commonwealth than in staving off republican movements, though he faces ongoing pressure to address the dark legacy of the slave trade in many former colonies. The king made a speech in Rwanda earlier this year during the most recent Commonwealth meeting in which he said that the “time has come” to discuss the impact of slavery and expressed “sorrow” over the practice but stopped short of a formal apology.
“He says that this needs to be an open and honest discussion, and the time is now,” Onslow said. “These are very important issues within Commonwealth countries … particularly within Caribbean member countries.”
On other issues key to the Commonwealth, the king has been a more vocal champion, particularly on environment sustainability, a subject which he’s been passionate about for nearly five decades. But as king, he will likely tone down his rhetoric as part of his new position, with the aim of following in the queen’s footsteps.
“Charles will be another royal diplomat,” Onslow said. But time will tell whether his far-flung dominions are ready to accept a new face in the same crown.
Zoya Sheftalovich contributed to this report.
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