Prince Charles is accompanying his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Malta this year.
This is not the first time Charles has attended the biennial gathering of the 53 Commonwealth nations, but his appearance is deeply significant.
He attended in 2013, but back then he was representing the Queen. Long-haul travelling had been ruled out for the 89-year-old monarch, and Charles went as her next-of-kin representative. This time, however, it has been suggested that his attendance is part of a wider effort to begin a transition period which will prepare Charles’ for his succession to the throne.
But the position of Head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary. There is no constitutional or statutory reason why Charles would take this role upon the Queen’s death. In fact, Charles has no more right to the leadership than any other head of state of the 53 Commonwealth nations.
Charles’ trip to Malta looks like an attempt by Buckingham Palace to secure the position for Charles upon his succession – a move which is neither lawful nor democratic.
The Commonwealth organises itself around values of “democracy”, “mutual respect” and “accountability”. The indoctrination of Charles is therefore a contradictory move. The aim appears to be to manipulate opinion and make his succession appear common sense and inevitable, an ideology Buckingham Palace are keen to authenticate as the Queen gets older.
A royal Commonwealth
The push for Charles’ inheritance of the role is especially problematic given the historical association of the Commonwealth with the British Empire.
The Commonwealth emerged as a result of post-World War II decolonisation, with many former colonies opting to join as free, equal nations. Their willingness to join together in this way was seen by many as having an anaesthetising effect. It was a means of reassuring the British public that the demise of empire would not diminish Britain’s global prestige. It was even originally called the British Commonwealth of Nations.
The fact that nations as diverse as Kenya, India and Jamaica are part of an intergovernmental organisation led by the Queen of the United Kingdom is indeed mystifying in a post-colonial world.
In 2013 The Gambia highlighted the Commonwealth’s unhealthy colonial associations by terminating its membership for precisely these reasons. The Prime Minister of Jamaica, meanwhile, has called for the Queen to be removed as Head of the Commonwealth due to Britain’s historical connections with slavery.
Representations of the Queen as a “neutral” figure of Commonwealth unity airbrush the perpetuation of colonialist ideologies in contemporary Britain and its international “family”. The Queen “apolitically” promotes the idea of unity and affability, but the fact is that her role as the Head of the Commonwealth allows Britain to continue its position of international privilege and influence. The British Empire was “a royal empire”, organised around the symbols of monarchy. With Elizabeth at its helm, the Commonwealth is a continuation of that, making the Commonwealth a royal Commonwealth.
We cannot forget that, despite claims that the Commonwealth is anachronistic in a modern world and of no contemporary political relevance, it still has substantial economic power. Despite its curiously benign status, the Commonwealth is a powerful and influential international organisation that can bestow great power on its leader.
It has been estimated that the member states have a combined GDP of $13 trillion and that trade between them is around $413billion. What’s more, 20% of all global aid passes between its member states. This puts Britain, as head of the organisation, in a position of huge economic privilege.
And even if the British government seems more interested in maintaining relations with the US and China, the Queen’s position within this organisation is an incredibly powerful influence on Britain’s diplomatic international relations.
Battle for the top spot
There is of course no guarantee that Charles will take the role as Head of the Commonwealth. The organisation updated its website in 2013 to explicitly state that ‘"the choice of successive Heads will be made collectively by Commonwealth leaders". Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has already voiced his disapproval of “King Charles”, so that’s at least one opponent to his succession.
However, it has been noted that the inevitable outpouring of grief upon the Queen’s death may well swing the decision in Charles’ favour. Then there are the significant number of Commonwealth initiatives tied to royal events, which centralise the role of the monarchy in the organisation.
Charles’ attendance at the heads of government meeting is an important step in the move towards succession, and is a preview of how Buckingham Palace will handle the transition to King Charles. Navigating these tricky waters is evidently a top priority, given that Charles’ relative lack of popularity compared to his mother threatens to rock the monarchy’s status quo.
With all this in mind, it’s vital that the question of the Commonwealth is brought up at this key moment. The democratic questions raised by the suggestion that there should or will be a hereditary Head of the Commonwealth must be addressed by all members of this apparently benign but in fact very powerful organisation.