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The Commonwealth Without Queen Elizabeth II: Is the Sun Setting on the Monarchy’s Overseas Role?

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

Alex MacLennan (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2024) is a contributor. His interests include international and comparative law, US and foreign elections, history, and economic policy. Alex holds a B.S. in Industrial Design from the University of Cincinnati. Before law school, he did product design work for various companies. He speaks enough French and German to be useful in continental European travel.


Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh board the Royal Aircraft to leave Queensland in 1954. Photo by Queensland State Archives.


Newly-appointed Prime Minister Liz Truss is currently dominating the headlines inside the United Kingdom. But for those not following domestic UK developments, the best-known piece of British news has not to do with the Liz now living at 10 Downing Street, but rather with the Liz who used to live in Buckingham Palace— Queen Elizabeth II.

For some, this fascination with the monarchy may seem unnecessary—after all,many republics were built on throwing off precisely that monarchy. However, the member states of the Commonwealth of Nations have a vested political interest in the transition. Not only is the monarch traditionally head of the Commonwealth, but the monarch is also officially the head of state for a subgroup of 15 member states known as the “Commonwealth Realms.” In life, it was rare that Elizabeth II would ever actually exercise power to interfere with governance of the Realms. However, her death has renewed the conversation regarding the continued place of the monarch as the head of state. While Elizabeth II's death will likely accelerate some states republicanizing, particularly in the Caribbean, other Commonwealth Realms will continue to hold on to the monarch as head of state and the larger network of the Commonwealth will continue to hold sway, even as it confronts its colonial past.

Where the Sun Never Set

References to the Sun never setting on the British Empire go back at least as early as 1773. For much of the 19th century, the United Kingdom was the world’s dominant economic power as it exercised its financial and military prowess around the world. But pressures for autonomy and independence in the lands it colonized continued to grow, driven by such factors as a lack of political rights, growing nationalist sentiment, and the exploitation of native peoples. Indeed, one common rejoinder was that it was “[n]o wonder that the sun never set on the British Empire, because even God couldn't trust the English in the dark.”

In the 20th century, the network of states connected by British colonialism gradually transitioned from forced empire to the modern Commonwealth of Nations, a political association of independent states. Some countries opted out of the Commonwealth, some remained but removed the monarch as head of state, and some have kept the monarch as head of state to the present day. While Elizabeth II was generally popular, King Charles III is not nearly so popular, raising questions about the continued role of the monarch as head of state.

Growing Caribbean Sentiment

In 2021, Barbados implemented a historic change in its constitution as it removed the monarch as head of state and replaced the position with an elected president, thus officially becoming a republic. Of course, Elizabeth II was still queen at the time, so it was not the identity of the monarch that catalyzed the change—rather it was the combination of growing republican sentiment and a decades-long debate.

However, Elizabeth II's death may give a fresh boost to republican efforts in other nations. During her reign, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, expressed support for removing the monarch as head of state and that the country should “one day become a republic.” Yet, he also noted that such a move was “not on the cards” at the time. However, shortly after signing a document confirming Charles’s status as king, Browne announced that he would push for a referendum within three years on whether to become a republic. As part of the effort, Browne noted that “[t]his is not an act of hostility or any difference between Antigua and Barbuda and the monarchy, but it is the final step to complete that circle of independence, to ensure that we are truly a sovereign nation.” Furthermore, as was the case with Barbados, Browne noted that even a republican Antigua and Barbuda would remain part of the Commonwealth.

In addition to Antigua and Barbuda, at least five other Caribbean countries—Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, and St. Kitts and Nevis—had expressed a desire to remove the monarch as head of state prior to Elizabeth II’s death. Jamaica had already announced plans to hold a referendum on the issue in 2025, and Belize has a constitutional reform commission poised to study the issue.

Canada

Unlike its rambunctious neighbor on its southern border, Canada’s independence process was comparatively slow and peaceful—notwithstanding such events as the Rebellions of 1837-38. In fact, relations with the monarchy were friendly enough that Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, preferred that the country be called the “Kingdom of Canada.” Adam Dodek, The Canadian Constitution 37 (Jenny McWha ed., 2nd ed. 2016) (noting that the British Colonial Office denied Macdonald’s choice of name out of concern over angering the United States).

Like other Commonwealth Realms, the monarch is represented by a governor general who has immense authority on paper but rarely uses that power. Regarding bills, no Canadian governor general has withheld assent or reserved a bill since 1878. Dodek at 61. Additionally, exercise of other significant powers in opposition to the prime minister—such as in the notorious 1926 King-Byng affair—would likely create a constitutional crisis. Practically, the area where the governor general is most likely to make headlines—aside from scandalsis when the governor general exercises powers in accordance with the prime minister’s wishes but in a way that angers opposition parties. Modern examples of this include the 2008 prorogation dispute and the 2021 early election call.

Perhaps the lack of a practical role for the monarch or governor general in determining Canadian governance is the reason Elizabeth II’s death and Charles III’s accession have had little impact on the Canadian public. A poll taken in September 2022 found that 75% of Canadians felt little or no impact from the Queen’s death, and 61% were indifferent to the accession of Charles III.

Some polling does exist to give anti-monarchists hope. While 82% of Canadians felt that Elizabeth II did a good job, only 56% are confident that Charles III will do the same. And polling prior to Elizabeth II’s death also indicates that support for the monarchy is a minority position. However, the same polls also found large numbers of undecided respondents and a lack of consensus on a preferred alternative—results that one commentator likened to a “collective shrug.”

Unlike other countries that may be able to easily act after a referendum against the monarchy, Canada’s constitution makes ending ties to the monarchy highly difficult. Canadian constitutional law experts note that such a constitutional amendment would require both the consent of parliament and the unanimous consent of all ten provinces. Given differences in provincial politics and the track record of previous referenda, experts doubt such an amendment would be possible without broad popular support and a will to push for the change. Given the above opinion polls, neither of these exist in Canada at the moment. As a result, the monarch will likely remain Canada’s head of state for some time yet. Whether Charles III will get his face on the currency is another matter, however.

Australia

Australia is no stranger to republican politics, having held a 1999 referendum on replacing the monarchy where the “no” vote prevailed 54.9% to 45.1%. The 2022 election of a Labor government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has given some renewed hope to Australian republicans, but they may have to wait for their desired change. Albanese does have a referendum on the agenda, but it is about recognizing Australia’s Indigenous people in the constitution—an election promise to be done within his first three years. Thus, even if Albanese wanted to accelerate a republican referendum—currently ruled out for his present term—the Indigenous representation referendum looks likely to require his current political capital and push the republican referendum several years into the future.

New Zealand

Recent polling in New Zealand indicates support for the monarchy even after Elizabeth II’s death. Perhaps reading public sentiment, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not pushed for a referendum on the issue, instead only saying that the country would likely become a republic within her lifetime. Of course, Ardern is also known for being one of the youngest prime ministers in New Zealand’s history, so her statement leaves room for New Zealand to keep the monarchy for decades to come.

Conclusion

The death of Elizabeth II has brought the nature of the Commonwealth and its Realms further into question. Although the Realms are independent in the practical sense of running their own affairs, they retain a geographically distant monarch as their official head of state. For some, the process of ending this arrangement began before Elizabeth II’s death, but the passing of the Crown has already led to new discussions of accelerated timelines and brought the issue to the forefront.

Still, one should not underestimate the popularity of the monarchy and difficulty of change in some Realms. While expressing openness to republicanization, politicians also recognize that popular support, constitutional amendment realities, and more pressing issues stand in the way of swift action to reform.

There is little indication that removing the monarch as head of state threatens the continued existence of the Commonwealth. Most member states do not have the monarch as head of state, and even those considering becoming republics have not indicated a desire to leave the organization. More likely, these recent developments signal the next steps in the organization’s evolution – a future where the Commonwealth has more republics and fewer Realms. The Commonwealth has evolved in the face of political reality before, and it looks poised to do so again.

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