By Rob Harris
London: Prince Charles jets into Kigali, Rwanda, next week with the weight of a former empire on his shoulders. The king-in-waiting has been thrust into the limelight during the past months, stepping up as his ailing mother drastically scales back her public duties.
So it has fallen to him to intervene to protect the monarchy from the scandal surrounding his brother, Prince Andrew. He’s also attempted to patch up the strained relations with his son Prince Harry and wife Meghan, following the fallout from their decision to cease their royal duties and move to the United States.
But amid the soap opera of two generations of warring siblings, the royals are also facing calls to modernise and even apologise. The House of Windsor must navigate a colonial reckoning after tours to the Caribbean earlier this year were plagued by protest and anti-monarchist sentiment.
The protests in Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas provided a window into some of the many challenges a post-Elizabethan world may provide for Charles, and his son William. And it all begs the question whether the Commonwealth - a group of 54 nation-states largely comprised of former British colonies - can survive.
While the Queen has championed the Commonwealth throughout her reign, many critics damn it as ineffective and irrelevant.
There has also been major discontent with the organisation at an administrative level, with a move afoot to oust Patricia Scotland as secretary general, following claims she has failed to modernise the institution.
Although some wealthier nations, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, still retain the Queen as their head of state, members in the Caribbean are intent on breaking with royal hierarchy after Barbados became the region’s newest republic at the end of last year.
Charles flew out to witness the historic moment, declaring that the “appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history” at an event in Bridgetown. But since that speech, officials in at least six countries have indicated they too intend to remove the monarch as their sovereign.
“What you’re really seeing now is the ghost of an organisation,” Philip Murphy, a professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London says.
“The Commonwealth talks about the importance of promoting democracy, tackling climate change, tackling gender inequality. But the Commonwealth isn’t necessarily a logical framework internationally in which to deal with any of those problems.”
Charles and wife, Camilla, will be the first British royals to visit Rwanda, which became a member of the Commonwealth in 2009 even though it was a colony of Germany in the 19th century and of Belgium for the first half of the 20th century.
They want to use their trip, in the days before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), to focus on reconciliation following the 1994 genocide, in which up to 800,000 people from the minority Tutsi community were slaughtered by Hutu extremists.
The couple face diplomatic challenges before they even arrive, after private comments from Charles regarding the British government’s offshore settlement deal with Rwanda - which he dubbed “appalling” - were leaked to the press last week. Awkwardly, he will be hosted by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who signed off on the agreement to process refugees who try to reach Britain by boat. It’s an immigration policy borrowed wholesale from Australia, and has already been subject to several legal challenges.
But Charles, 73, has already shown that his long wait to become king has taught him the art of diplomacy. When he visited Canada last month as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the palace was acutely aware of the prospect of another post-colonial public relations disaster.
Last year, Canada was rocked by the discovery in unmarked graves of hundreds of bodies of schoolchildren, taken from their families and in numerous instances abused at church-run institutions.
Indigenous leaders called on the Queen - as Queen of Canada and head of the Anglican Church - to apologise and support reparations for the families of the estimated 150,000 children taken from their homes. At one protest in Winnipeg last July, statues of the Queen and her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria were daubed with red paint and toppled to the ground.
Charles read the room. In an unexpected and unscripted impassioned speech during the final hours in Canada, he said he had been “deeply moved” by meeting the survivors of the residential school scandal.
“We must listen to the truth of the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples, and we should work to understand better their pain and suffering,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to listen, understand and act in ways that foster relationships between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Canada.”
But while the Queen, for now, remains constitutional head of state of 15 Commonwealth realms, the Commonwealth, with a combined population of 2.4 billion, is growing. Membership is voluntary and several countries have left and re-joined. Ireland left, never to return, and Zimbabwe, suspended in 2002, is now seeking to re-join. Mozambique and Rwanda have joined without any previous links to the empire while South Sudan, Suriname, Burundi and the as-yet unrecognised Somaliland sit on a waiting list.
When Barbados severed its constitutional links with the British monarch in November 2021, press reports speculated that the Commonwealth was “on a knife edge”. But the public narrative was sharply at odds with Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s firm statement that Barbados remains committed to the Commonwealth.
Lord Meghnad Desai, a British economist and former Labour politician, has warned the Commonwealth will collapse if it continues to be UK-centric, especially without the authority of the Queen.
However, he believes if it modernises, potentially by removing the royals as the ceremonial head and allowing nations to share responsibilities for chairing the organisation, it can survive and thrive as a consequential alliance.
“The new generation wants to question and re-evaluate the history of the empire, and that is a good thing,” he said this week.
Pointing out that two thirds of the population of the Commonwealth is now under 30, with no emotional attachment to the royal family, he said it was clear a change of the monarch would bring about a change in the nature of the Commonwealth.
“That is where the future of the institution is,” he said.
Born in India, Desai said the experience of his country showed that gaining independence does not mean leaving the Commonwealth. He said the institution transcends the old relationship of emperor and subjects, and it was possible to question and challenge the past and “still be family”.
“If Australia becomes a republic, the Commonwealth doesn’t have to change,” he says.
“The UK is no longer telling them what to do or what not to do. All the UK wants is for them to be in the family. Yes there will be changes, but with the changes, will be continuity.”
Craig Prescott, a lecturer in UK constitutional law at Bangor University, says the Commonwealth survives because it has always been a priority to the Queen.
While Charles has promised to speak his mind less when he becomes king, Prescott says his strong interest in climate change, may make him appealing to members of the Commonwealth.
“The biggest open goal of the Commonwealth is tackling climate change, as many countries in the organisation are likely to suffer greatly due to its effects. The organisation could really have a role to play, for instance by supporting countries to move away from carbon to net-zero emissions,” he said.
“But this may require rethinking the shape of the Commonwealth — its resources and capabilities. There hasn’t really been political will to scale it up. It might as well be that it has been superseded by other international organisations and alliances, like the G20”.
Several Australian academics, such as Professor Jenny Hocking, believe that more countries may seek to gain independence from the royal family upon the Queen’s death, due to Charles’s unpopularity and his perceived interventionist style.
But Cindy McCreery, a historian and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, has argued it is Charles’s passion for issues such as the environment and youth affairs might work in his favour.
“Charles may actually have the ability to get more done than Elizabeth, as he has significant experience working with organisations that are campaigning in these areas,” she says.
Following the disastrous tour of the Carribean earlier this year, William and Catherine vowed to change the way the royals operate after they faced accusations that Belize locals were not consulted about a royal engagement.
The couple were accused of being “tone deaf” after they were seen shaking hands with crowds behind a wire-mesh fence in Kingston, while images of the pair riding in the back of a Land Rover were denounced as harking back to colonial days.
Omid Scobie, a royal commentator with Harper’s Bazaar, says he can understand why there has been reluctance for members to engage in conversations about Britain’s legacy of slavery, particularly across the Caribbean.
He says the Windsor royals would need to acknowledge that their existence was, also in part, the result of over 300 years of devastating atrocities led by some of their predecessors.
“As people across the world continue to learn about the importance of dismantling structural racism, it’s essential that these uncomfortable conversations are had by all,” he says.
While the Queen has acknowledged the monarchy must evolve and reflect modern values to survive, Scobie last month questioned the wisdom behind the planning of old-fashioned royal tours.
“Imagine the lasting impact it could have had, not just on each country but on his legacy as a king in the making, if Prince William had gone a step further than saying slavery ‘should never have happened’ and actually expressed remorse for colonialism, slavery and the destruction of Black families.“
Almost 30 years ago the organisation was praised for its significant role in helping end apartheid in South Africa, Professor Murphy says he is unconvinced of its wider benefit into the future.
“I think it will stagger on,” he said. “I don’t see the will to draw a line under it, and I don’t see who would really have the authority to do that. I think the danger is that it will just gradually become less influential, less important and less interesting to its citizens.”
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