What will King Charles mean for the future of the Commonwealth?

Rise of republicanism is a threat to the organisation closely associated with Britain’s colonial past

The then Prince Charles at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda in June
The then Prince Charles was chosen in 2018 as the Commonwealth’s next head
(Image credit: Tim Rooke/Pool/Getty Images)

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has changed his mind and said there will not be a referendum on whether his country should become a republic and replace King Charles III as head of state.

Albanese, a staunch republican, said he would not “pursue questions” of constitutional change unless he was re-elected, out of “deep respect and admiration” for the Queen. The announcement “represents a reversal of his earlier policy”, which his government began preparing for when he was elected in June, said The Independent.

“The reigniting of the republican debate was perhaps inevitable in the wake of the Queen’s death,” said Sky News, but “if Prince Charles has a successful start to his reign and avoids entangling himself in Australia’s political fault lines, the republican debate may well be kicked into the long grass”.

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Yet the debate around republicanism is linked to a wider conversation around the future of the Commonwealth of Nations, a grouping of 56 countries covering 2.5 billion people around the world. It has been hailed as the Queen’s defining legacy but others argue it is a remnant and reminder of Britain’s colonial past.

What did the papers say?

“If it hadn’t been for the personal efforts of Her Majesty the Queen, it seems inconceivable that the Commonwealth of Nations would exist today,” said The Telegraph.

“She sat at the heart of the organisation, and its disparate and far-flung members united around her,” argued the paper, and now she is gone it will “face a reckoning”, said The Guardian.

Speaking on CNN, royal historian Kate Williams said she expected the Commonwealth to “fragment” under King Charles as many countries vote to become republics and others look to form new alliances away from Britain’s orbit.

Maintaining the widely disparate group of countries that make up the Commonwealth is perhaps Charles’ biggest challenge as monarch.

On Saturday, he met Commonwealth leaders at Buckingham Palace, “signalling the start of his own relationship with the organisation ‘cherished’ by the Queen but which could see major challenges during his reign”, said the i news site.

Philip Murphy, professor of British and Commonwealth history at the University of London, told the site: “I think it’s very important for the Palace to signal that King Charles is King of the Commonwealth Realm and separately head of the Commonwealth.”

It should be stressed that “despite its ties to the British Empire, any country can join the modern Commonwealth, and other countries without any links from the colonial past have recently been admitted, such as Rwanda and Mozambique”, said ABC News.Gabon and Togo have joined the Commonwealth this year.

As ABC News pointed out, 36 member countries are republics, while five – Brunei, Lesotho, Malaysia, Eswatini and Tonga – have their own monarchs.

“Republicanism comes and goes,” noted historian Andrew Roberts in the Daily Mail. “It became an issue in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s, in Australia in the 1990s, and as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Windrush scandal and the slavery reparations issue, it is presently one in the Caribbean.”

Yet, he said, “I see nothing inevitable about the demise of the Crown Commonwealth”, describing it as “a bulwark of freedom in an increasingly dangerous world”.

What next?

Most agree the biggest threat to the future of the Commonwealth comes from the Caribbean, which accounts for more than half the countries in the world that still have the British monarch as head of state.

Newsweek reported that King Charles “could be bracing for a Commonwealth crisis” in the region after the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, announced plans to hold a referendum within three years on whether to become a republic.

“It does not represent any form of disrespect to the monarch,” Browne said. “This is not an act of hostility, or any difference between Antigua and Barbuda and the monarchy. It is a final step to complete the circle of independence to become a truly sovereign nation.”

Last year Barbados became the first country in almost 30 years to break with the crown and become a republic. There are reports that Jamaica will look to follow suit and hold its own referendum as soon as 2025.

On Friday, the front-page story on one of Jamaica’s leading newspapers, the Gleaner, claimed the Queen’s death would “make Jamaica’s break with monarchy easier”.

Yet Barbados remains part of the Commonwealth and it is highly unlikely other countries that become republics would look to leave the organisation, at least in the immediate future.

For its part, the Commonwealth of Nations has attempted to modernise and make itself more democratic, for example by declaring that its head is not a hereditary role. However, Charles was still chosen as its leader in 2018, “which has made some countries uncomfortable”, said The Guardian.

Despite this, Professor Murphy believes the Commonwealth will carry on in its present form during King Charles’ reign.

“It serves sufficient marginal purposes, it’s not worth the bother of trying to close down,” he said.

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