After the death of Queen Elizabeth II at age 96 on the afternoon of 8 September 2022, after seven decades on the throne, her son was crowned King Charles III of the United Kingdom and head of the Commonwealth realms, which currently include 14 countries. Charles’s accession ensured the continuation of royal traditions passed down since the sixteenth century. Charles immediately commenced his duties as king by holding sessions with advisors and the Cabinet and spoke before the Parliament. Preparations then began for the queen’s funeral, which will be held on 19 September. However, there is uncertainty about the extent to which the constitutional monarchy will continue as the system of governance in the UK after the death of the most popular queen in the country’s history. It is also unclear what will happen to the Commonwealth, which is comprised of former British colonies, given growing calls for independence from the British monarchy immediately following the queen’s death. This could create additional challenges for Charles III, especially given current turmoil at the regional and international level.
Signs of Change
Queen Elizabeth II ruled over the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth from 1952 onwards, through various successive historical shifts and transformations. She was a symbol of stability in changing times. Although her powers were symbolic and Elizabeth could "rule, but not govern," while the UK Parliament and government oversaw the country’s affairs, the popular queen nevertheless had a major role in preserving the Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth of Nations was established in 1949 as a voluntary association of 54 countries, based on a shared commitment to values including liberty, human rights, improving trade, and good governance. The queen visited all Commonwealth countries at least once. The Commonwealth of Nations differs from the 14 countries that remain symbolically under the British crown as Commonwealth realms. Some of these countries expressed a desire for independence and to sever ties with the British crown immediately after the queen’s death.
Efforts by these countries to leave the Commonwealth have ramped up in recent years. For the last two years, there has been increasing support in the 14 Commonwealth realms for becoming republics and achieving independence. This occurred after Barbados became a republic in 2021, prompting six other Caribbean Island countries to express their intent to remove the British monarch as head of state, including Belize, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Grenada. Australian independence from the crown has also gained popularity: In 2020, 62% of Australians stated that they would prefer an Australian head of state instead. After the queen’s death, Adam Bandt, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, called for independence from the British crown and for Australia to become a republic.
In Canada, support for independence from the British monarchy has grown to a more limited extent. In April 2022, an opinion poll found that 51% of Canadians backed separating from the crown while 26% preferred to remain under the British monarchy as a Commonwealth country. After the queen’s death, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, stated that a republic was "where New Zealand would head in time" but that she did not see this as a "short-term measure." Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda (a small Caribbean country with a population of approximately 100,000 people), stated on 11 September that he intended to hold a referendum on his country becoming a republic during the next three years. This would result in separation from the British monarchy and the removal of Charles III as head of state. Browne affirmed that this latter point would constitute "a final step to complete the circle of independence to become a truly sovereign nation," and that it was not "an act of hostility" in any way.
The Demise of the Commonwealth?
The likely collapse of the British Commonwealth after the death of Queen Elizabeth II can be attributed to several main causes:
1. Relative unpopularity of Charles III compared to the queen: The expressions of sorrow after the queen’s death in the UK and Commonwealth, as well as in some allied nations such as France, were a testament to the extent of the queen’s popularity and respect among the people. This is the greatest challenge that her successor Charles III will face, since he lacks the same popular backing. Although Charles vowed in his speech before Parliament to follow the queen’s approach with regard to constitutional democracy, the criticisms he faced as prince will continue to haunt him as king. There are also concerns about the new king’s capacity to achieve progress and maintain the unity and cohesiveness of the royal family and United Kingdom.
2. New king facing turmoil on domestic and international fronts: The queen’s death came at a difficult time for the United Kingdom, which is struggling with domestic instability after continuous changes in prime ministers over the last six years. Liz Truss, the current prime minister, was not directly elected and is known for her opposition to the monarchy. At the regional level, the UK is still caught up in Brexit, other political and economic crises, and an energy crisis caused by the Russian military operations in Ukraine during the past six months. Last month, the British economy declined to become only the sixth largest economy in the world. Inflation has reached its highest levels in 40 years and the country is experiencing its most severe economic crisis in recent decades. Furthermore, London is seen as a key backer for Kiev in the war in Ukraine and it will need to continue to supply Kiev with extensive military aid. These concurrent crises could lead various countries to try to get out from under the British crown in order to escape the corresponding political and economic pressures. In other words, countries with ties the British monarchy do not feel that they stand to gain from this association given the crises that the UK is facing.
3. Memories of the crimes of colonialism: Although Commonwealth countries expressed sadness after the queen’s death, various intellectual figures from the former British colonies also drew attention to the crimes of British colonialism over the past century, including the oppression of Black, indigenous, and minority populations in Caribbean and African nations. They recalled how the crown had seized raw materials and natural resources from these countries during decades of colonial rule, which led to economic and social hardships in those nations. Some demanded that the UK pay reparations for its long decades of colonial rule and called for reexamining this history in order to render justice to developing nations and former colonies.
4. Growing momentum for independence movements within the UK: The United Kingdom is composed of four countries: Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The new King Charles III visited each of these immediately after acceding to the throne. He was met with lukewarm support in Scotland and Northern Island, which have been trying to separate from the United Kingdom. Ireland fought its own battle for independence for two decades until a peace agreement was signed in 1998. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, independence movements have gained momentum and the two largest political parties support leaving the United Kingdom. One fourth of Welsh citizens also support independence. The Guardian noted that Scots had expressed an "outpouring of affection" for the queen herself but that this did not necessarily extend to the institution of the monarchy.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the first steps towards independence at the end of June, when she stated that she would hold a second referendum on Scottish independence on 19 October 2023. The UK Supreme Court is expected to decide this fall whether Sturgeon has the power to call this referendum. It is worth noting that Scotland held a referendum for separation from the United Kingdom in 2014, in which 55% of Scottish voters backed the monarchy after the late queen instructed them to "think very carefully about the future." This comment played a role in reducing support for independence, although current opinion polls suggest that Scotland could now split from the United Kingdom to become an independent country and perhaps later join the European Union. If Scotland does become independent, Northern Ireland could follow suit, leaving only England and Wales in the United Kingdom.
There are several main scenarios for the UK and Commonwealth’s future under the reign of King Charles III, which include the following:
1. UK and Commonwealth preserved as cohesive entities: Immediately after Charles III was crowned king, twelve of a total 14 Commonwealth realms recognized him as the new monarch. It is likely that he will become head of the Commonwealth of Nations after the queen, provided that he can maintain the unity of the UK and Commonwealth and reestablish communication with various political forces and parties within and beyond the UK. Charles needs to fill the political and historic vacuum created by the queen’s death in order to hold onto the UK and Commonwealth. In this scenario, Charles III would need to propose new mechanisms and set new goals for developing the Commonwealth and for dealing with current economic crises and challenges that the UK and Commonwealth are facing.
2. Partial dissolution of the Commonwealth in which some realms become independent republics: This scenario is based on the evident desire of some Commonwealth realms such as Jamaica, Belize, New Zealand, and Antigua and Barbuda to achieve independence. However, this would not necessarily lead to their severance of ties with the United Kingdom or the British Commonwealth of Nations (which includes 54 countries). This could in fact result in stronger ties between these countries, while the UK and King Charles III might establish the framework for independence in these countries without any political or constitutional crises. In this scenario, some countries might remain under the British crown, including Canada.
3. Complete dissolution of the Commonwealth: In this scenario, the Commonwealth would be fully dissolved, i.e., none of the 14 realms would remain under the British monarchy. This scenario could happen in the short- or medium-term—within the next five years or so— as a result of rising nationalist sentiment and support for independence in these countries, as well as economic and political crises that could spur these countries to cut off their symbolic association with the British crown. This might also be followed by the independence of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, as well as numerous constitutional amendments in Commonwealth countries, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, whose constitutions currently stipulate allegiance to the United Kingdom and its monarch. These countries might maintain diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties given the historical links between these nations and the UK.
4. Establishing an alternative framework to the Commonwealth: In this scenario, the dissolution of the current Commonwealth could be followed by establishing an alternative framework. The newly-independent Commonwealth realms might also join the 54 countries in the British Commonwealth of Nations. This would be a voluntary and symbolic arrangement without any political commitments between countries.
In conclusion, the death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of an era for the United Kingdom and is likely to have numerous repercussions for the UK and Commonwealth realms. This might include the dissolution of these historic associations and the beginning of a new era in British history as countries cut symbolic ties to the crown. It could even result in radical changes in British politics, with the United Kingdom losing its wider kingdom for the first time in centuries.