The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge rarely put a foot wrong. Over the past decade, the couple who are seen as key to the future of the British monarchy, have undertaken successful visits to Europe, North America, Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific Islands. However, the royal charm offensive fell flat during the current tour of three Commonwealth realm countries in the Caribbean, where the chilly reception in Jamaica may have come as a shock to both the royals and the British government.
The royal tour started in Belize on 19 March 2022, where protests over ancestral land rights involving a conservation group for which Prince William is the patron, forced the cancellation of the first engagement. Prince William gave a speech at a reception on 21 March on the Ukraine war and did not address the local issues, which was a missed opportunity for the royals to demonstrate that there is genuine concern for citizens of former colonies.
The next stop of the tour was Jamaica from 22-24 March, where protestors demanded an apology for slavery and colonialism, and long overdue reparation. Great Britain and Portugal were responsible for over 70% of slave trade and the Slave Compensation Act of 1837 awarded the 47,000 slave owners a sum of £20m (estimates range wildly from £15-300 billion of what the sum would be equivalent to today), which UK taxpayers finished paying off in 2015. Formal requests to uncover who received the money have been denied though researchers have linked one of the beneficiaries to the ancestors of former British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Meanwhile, former slaves and their descendants received no compensation. Prince William called slavery “abhorrent” but did not apologise.
Perhaps the most tense moment for the royals came when Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness said the country will be “moving on” and start the process of replacing Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state, with a referendum expected later this year. Jamaica has been under increasing pressure from locals to make the transition after Barbados became a republic in November 2021. The republican movement is growing in other Commonwealth realm countries. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, expects her country to become a republic “in my lifetime”.
This trend begs the question: will the last remnant of the Great British Empire survive after the reign of Queen Elizabeth II?
The Commonwealth was conceived at the 1926 Imperial Conference which was hosted by King George V when his granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth II), was just six months old. The conference was attended by the leaders of Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa. Members were deemed equal even though they owed allegiance to the British monarch.
The modern-day Commonwealth of Nations was born in 1949 to allow India, which became an independent republic in 1947, to remain part of the commonwealth. This paved the way for other former colonies to join the Commonwealth on a voluntary basis post their independence. Rwanda and Mozambique have no historical ties to Great Britain but asked to join. Rwanda will host the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June 2022.
Today the Commonwealth is a loose association of 54 countries, covering 2.4 billion people or one-third of the world, and 14% of global GDP (more than $10 trillion).
The work of the Commonwealth is managed by the London-based Secretariat which was created in 1965. The current Secretary-General is Patricia Scotland, who became the first female to hold the post when she was elected in 2015.
The Secretariat relies on contributions from members states which meet over 70% of the £25.7m budget. The biggest contributors are the UK (£5.5m), Canada (£3.4m) and Australia (£2.1m). Most of this money is spent on staff costs, property and equipment, travel, conferences, consultants, and subscriptions. 40% of the so-called “projects budget” is spent on internal outcomes.
The latest annual report highlights the most recent successes as technical assistance provided to 44 projects; training 400 youth and 150 debt management professionals; establishing 13 trade advisers; and mobilising $34m of climate financing, though the details are light.
Many countries joined the Commonwealth because they wanted to maintain close ties with Great Britain. The British Nationality Act 1948 defined British subjects as including those from the Commonwealth, who held the automatic right to settle in the UK. Countries that gained independence early such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia, India and Pakistan benefitted the most from this perk.
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1982 imposed the first restrictions on Commonwealth countries by requiring work permits for Commonwealth citizens following opposition to non-white immigration to Great Britain by some members of the Conservative Party. Today, citizens of most Commonwealth countries cannot visit the UK without a visa – so much for being equal.
Some of the perks that do remain include support from the British Consulate in countries where a Commonwealth country does not have an embassy or consulate. This was apparent at the start of the Russo-Ukraine War when stranded African students received more assistance from the British government than their own. Commonwealth citizens are also entitled to vote in countries such as the UK, Mauritius, and the Bahamas.
The biggest beneficiary of the Commonwealth is the United Kingdom itself. This political association is the last reminder of what once was the largest empire in history and made Great Britain a global political and economic powerhouse. Those days are gone.
Not only has Great Britain lost its standing in the world but it has also alienated the very countries that still make it relevant. The tide is shifting as Commonwealth countries wake up to the sad reality that this neo-colonial association was not created to serve them. We all read Animal farm and know that some animals are more equal than others.
Queen Elizabeth II commands an enormous amount of respect across the world for her dedication to duty. This respect is the reason the status quo has continued for nearly 100 years. It is increasingly likely that the institution that was founded in the year of her birth may crumble with her death.