In going along with the Queen’s wish to make Charles their next head, Commonwealth leaders put paid to any hopes the crown might skip a generation, writes Louis – sorry, Lewis – Holden
When it comes to the British Royals, the excitement of many for Prince William and Kate’s latest addition eclipsed a somewhat more significant event for the future of the British monarchy and the Commonwealth last week. While a new son, the now-named Prince Louis, is exciting and not something to begrudge, the dry declarations of the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London will have a greater impact on the institution in the long run.
The biannual meeting of the heads of state and government of the 53 member states of the Commonwealth declared Prince Charles as the next Head of the Commonwealth. While that might not sound that radical, it signalled a number of things about the Commonwealth and Prince Charles that should give us pause for thought.
The role of “Head of the Commonwealth” was created by the London Declaration of 1949 as a sinecure for the Queen’s father, George VI. It was prompted by India’s post-independence constitution making the country a republic in 1950, replacing King-Emperor George VI with their own elected President. There was a real risk that the then-named British Commonwealth would lose most of its members as the winds of change blew across the former British Empire, and more former colonies achieved independence.
Only months before the London Declaration was made, Ireland had become a republic and left the British Commonwealth. Britain at the time wanted to retain some vestiges of Empire and many of the former colonies – especially those dominated by the descendants of British settlers – wanted to keep close association with Britain. The Head of the Commonwealth was not a hereditary title, and was to be agreed on by the leaders of the Commonwealth.
This is where things got messy. When the Queen ascended to the British throne in 1952, there was no debate that the title would carry over from father to daughter. The Commonwealth at that point consisted of nine independent members, eight of which were then monarchies. It was not hard for them to agree that the Queen would have the title as well.
Fast forward 66 years and the modern Commonwealth – focused more on spreading democracy, improving education and the environment rather than the monarch’s titles – is a much larger international association. Of the 53 members, the majority now have their own heads of state; only 16 still have the British monarch as their head of state.
The rest are republics or have their own monarchy. As a result, the Commonwealth’s membership structure means that their risk was that Charles would not be made Head of the Commonwealth once the Queen’s reign ends; there was a very serious suggestion that the position could rotate among members, just like the role of Chair-in-Office – currently British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Last week’s decision put the kibosh on that suggestion. The CHOGM leaders’ statement makes it clear that Prince Charles will be the next Head of the Commonwealth. The Queen effectively killed any speculation on the future of the title by expressing her “wish” that Charles would take the role, which ensured there really was only one option for the meeting: to make Charles the next Head of the Commonwealth.
Two things stand out about this. The first is that the Queen recognised her own mortality and the need to put in place a successor in the Commonwealth. At 92 years old it is possible – although to use Jacinda Ardern’s phrase it’s a “bit dark” to discuss it – that the Queen won’t see another CHOGM. Thoughts have turned to what will happens when she passes away or is too unwell to carry out public duties.
The second is that it took the Queen’s intervention to ensure Charles would get the title, a potential harbinger for what may yet come when Charles becomes King. It is clear that Charles does not enjoy the popularity of his mother and his record of trying to influence the British government has shown that the political neutrality essential to the survival of the monarchy is dependent on the personality of the office holder. There are some who would prefer to avoid him as monarch.
By making Charles the Queen’s successor as Head of the Commonwealth, any speculation that the Crown might “skip a generation” to Prince William – as many, including minister of defence Ron Mark, have suggested – is now off the table. Which in the final analysis tells us again that, when the time comes, Charles will be King.
Lewis Holden is a former National candidate for Rimutaka and former chair of New Zealand Republic, and current chair of Change the NZ Flag.
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