Queen Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth
What is next for the Commonwealth of Nations?
With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, an era has come to an end. Heartbroken supporters continue to grieve but many members of the Commonwealth have signalled they are ready for a new relationship with the United Kingdom. Could new leadership in the UK usher in that change?
In this episode:
- Rosalea Hamilton (@rosaleahamilton), economist and chair Caribbean Philanthropic Alliance
- Ed Owens (@DrEdOwens), royal historian, commentator, author of The Family Firm
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It has been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions; our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: Well, it’s a little after half past six on this Thursday afternoon. We’ve just had the announcement that the queen has died.
Newsreel: The BBC is interrupting its normal programs to bring you an important announcement.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s not really sunk in much yet. People are still on their commute home at this time of day.
Newsreel: Buckingham Palace has announced the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s going to be a hard few days for some of us from the UK.
Newsreel: The longest reign in British history. The family have come together: Charles is there, Andrew and Prince William, the Sussexes – or at least Harry, Duke of Sussex. She might have been the queen, but she was a mother and a grandmother and a great-grandmother too.
Halla Mohieddeen: I’m Halla Moheiddeen, in for Malika Bilal, and before Malika left for maternity leave, she left us with this remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II, that also acknowledges some hard questions about what comes next.
Malika Bilal: Elizabeth II’s reign – remembered as the longest of any British monarch in history – has come to an end.
Newsreel: As soon as the queen had died, Prince Charles immediately became king already.
Malika Bilal: With more than seven decades on the throne, this was not unexpected, but for her supporters, it was still hard to take.
Newsreel: Some are in tears, others are hugging each other, some arrived to wish her family well and arrived to the news that the queen had died. They were shocked.
Malika Bilal: For others, her reign symbolised the vestiges of colonialism.
Rosalea Hamilton: Anchored on an anachronistic idea of a monarchy, an undemocratic institution that somehow reigns supreme. I think that old arrangement must change.
Malika Bilal: But from the beginning, Elizabeth II and the monarchy struggled with change. So, what will that mean for the next generation of British royalty and those under its reign? I’m Malika Bilal and this is the Take.
Malika Bilal: In the UK, as it happened 70 years ago, when Queen Elizabeth first received the crown following the death of her father, the crown has now passed to a new king. But does this mean the monarchy, as it was under Elizabeth II, will remain?
Ed Owens: This moment, following the death of Elizabeth II, is extremely important, because we don’t know what’s going to come next.
Malika Bilal: Dr Ed Owens is a royal historian and commentator.
Ed Owens: I’m author of, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public.
Malika Bilal: In other words, he’s studied the royal family for years, knowing this day would come.
Ed Owens: The British royal family are well prepared, as is the rest of the British state for this moment. It’s been many years in the making, but nevertheless, we have seen a decline in the popularity of the institution of monarchy. It really remains to be seen whether or not that love and affection many members of the public have expressed for Elizabeth II successfully transfers.
Malika Bilal: As queen, Elizabeth led the United Kingdom as a constitutional monarch, meaning her power over domestic issues was all but symbolic, and according to Dr Owens, that was her greatest strength.
Ed Owens: Elizabeth II did a better job than any monarch before her of keeping her own ideas, her own opinions hidden from public view. She was to all intents and purposes non-partisan, and this meant that members of the public, no matter their political opinions, could identify with her as a neutral head of state.
Malika Bilal: But the Crown’s reign does not stop at Britain’s shores. It also encompasses the Commonwealth – 56 countries allied with British diplomatic interests around the globe – and Elizabeth II visited almost all of them.
Queen Elizabeth II: I feel enormously proud of what the Commonwealth has achieved and all of it within my lifetime.
Ed Owens: The reason why the Commonwealth is still going is arguably due to the personal perseverance of Elizabeth II.
Malika Bilal: And to understand why it’s helpful to remember the queen grew up in a world where Britain’s reign still stretched around the globe.
Newsreel: It was the empire on which the sun never set, or as some said, on which the blood never dried.
Malika Bilal: King George, the queen’s father, was still the emperor of India when she was a child.
Newsreel: Peoples of the empire, and men and women in all quarters of the globe, I say to you…
Ed Owens: The world that she inherited as monarch was a world that was rapidly changing. This thing called empire that had been built on violence, coercion, economic exploitation, and the extraction of raw materials was being reformulated into this thing called “Commonwealth”.
Malika Bilal: When it was first formed, many of Britain’s colonies were winning their struggles for independence.
Newsreel: In the 1960s, with European colonial powers declining, a number of African nations gained their independence.
Malika Bilal: And World War II had just ended. This was a new era with new relationships.
Newsreel: The guests who came from all over the Commonwealth and empire, as well as from Britain, numbered about 7,000. Happily, the weather was nice and bright when the queen and members of the royal family came out across the lawn. Many guests were presented to the queen and to the duke.
Ed Owens: And the Commonwealth was re-imagined around the themes of unity, of inclusivity, of equality, of democracy, human rights. Well, the Commonwealth hasn’t managed to live up to those expectations in many ways, but nevertheless, Elizabeth II found her political role back in Britain very much constrained. In the Commonwealth context, on a geopolitical stage, she exercised much greater influence.
Malika Bilal: She was able to exercise a significant amount of soft power in this role.
Ed Owens: Which also provided a platform for the monarchy to speak out on a global stage, about matters and issues of importance over the course of the last 70 or so years and the officials in the Foreign Office often found this extremely frustrating because very often the monarchy’s ambitions for the Commonwealth existed in direct tension with the British government’s foreign policy aims. I think that is significant.
Ed Owens: So yes, Elizabeth II has kept this institution meaningful, and the energy and ideas that she put into it, but I think there is a good and bad side to that. Can it continue to exist? Well, that is another question entirely. Without the full backing of the figure of Elizabeth II, I think it remains to be seen where exactly this organisation does go from here.
Malika Bilal: And Dr Owens isn’t the only one asking that question. Members of many former colonies have been disenchanted by what this relationship with British royalty has brought. Lidia Thorpe, an Indigenous senator from Australia, spoke out about the British monarchy’s role in colonialism at her recent swearing-in ceremony.
Lidia Thorpe: I, sovereign Lidia Thorpe, do solemnly and sincerely disagree that I would be faithful and I bear true allegiance to the colonising Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
Malika Bilal: And this is Kristina Hinds, an academic from the University of the West Indies in Barbados, speaking with Al Jazeera about her thoughts on the monarchy.
Kristina Hinds: I think it is an irrelevant institution. I truly believe this and not just for Africa, for India, but for Britain itself, it is an institution that no longer serves anyone.
Rosalea Hamilton: I’ve described it as a fallacy.
Malika Bilal: And that’s Rosalea Hamilton. You heard her at the beginning of this episode. She’s Jamaican.
Rosalea Hamilton: I am part of the Advocates Network in Jamaica, committed to improving human rights and good governance in Jamaica and across the Caribbean.
Malika Bilal: The British took over Jamaica in 1655. Three centuries later, in 1962, Jamaica gained its independence, but the queen remained the head of state and the country was still a dominion of the British Commonwealth. And this premise of equality – it just doesn’t ring true Rosalea says.
Rosalea Hamilton: The idea that the dominions and Britain are equal in status and in no way subordinate in any respect of their domestic or external affairs – that’s the way it’s framed – I see as flawed, inherently flawed. I think that there’s no doubt, the history of British domination is indisputable. It’s a historic fact.
Malika Bilal: We should be clear that not all Commonwealth members are former British colonies.
Malika Bilal: In fact, Togo and Gabon, two former French colonies have recently joined, but most members were part of the British empire and Jamaica is one of 15 that still have the queen as head of state.
Malika Bilal: The Crown’s role may be changing though. With the Commonwealth, it’s not hereditary, and it will not pass to Charles automatically. There is no formal process for the successor, in fact, and Rosalea says she’s ready for something new.
Rosalea Hamilton: I think that old arrangement must change. In the case of Jamaica, we’re having a lively discussion about removing the queen as head of state
Newsreel: Jamaican protesters are calling on the Crown to redefine their relationship with the island.
Newsreel: The Jamaican prime minister announced the country wants to cut ties with the royal family.
Rosalea Hamilton: And we would have seen other countries, most recently Barbados, deciding very decisively to move the queen as head of state.
Malika Bilal: In December of 2021, we reported on how Barbados was redefining its relationship with the Crown.
Malika Bilal: Things feel a little bit different in Barbados.
Suleiman Bulbulia: We no longer have to give allegiance to the queen.
Malika Bilal: But it’s taken 55 years to cast off Queen Elizabeth and for the first time, a Barbadian president became the head of state.
Malika Bilal: Now, many Jamaicans want that, too. And not just that – they want reparations for the centuries of slavery Britain allowed and enforced. The UK has distributed more than 20 million pounds ($23.2 million) to compensate slave owners but nothing has gone to the descendants of those enslaved.
Newsreel: There are demands in Jamaica for the monarchy to apologise, and for the British government to pay reparations for slavery. In the island nation, there is also a debate about whether to keep the queen as head of state or go the way of Barbados and become a republic.
Rosalea Hamilton: Those kinds of relationships must change and at the centre of any idea of a new Commonwealth must be reparatory justice, must be the idea that we can’t simply sweep the history under the carpet. We live today with the legacies of that history.
Malika Bilal: But it’s complicated, Rosalea says.
Malika Bilal: Despite this push for a new relationship with the British monarchy, Queen Elizabeth was also adored.
Rosalea Hamilton: What it meant for many in the Commonwealth is a woman who many loved for many years, who many saw as a woman who represented all that we were taught that Britain represents and there are still people who see her in a positive light. But increasingly, we have seen as the history becomes more transparent and known to many in the Commonwealth, especially here in the Caribbean, we’ve seen the shifting of that view, because the monarchy, the royal family, is now associated with its direct involvement in the trafficking and enslavement of Africans.
Newsreel: In the 18th century, Africans were taken as slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Their descendants now people those islands.
Rosalea Hamilton: And for many persons in the region, they didn’t know and still don’t know that this is part of that historical reality. And so, that idea that we are still led by a royal family, a monarchy, that, at its core, profited and benefitted for decades on the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors. That association with the monarchy that is very difficult to shape now that it’s out there and it’s growing and that’s not going to go away because the pains run deep. The wounds are still with us and so, as more and more people begin to understand that, then I think the views of the monarchy as a benign institution and an institution that should be loved and respected is changing and will continue to change.
Malika Bilal: And there are benefits to the Commonwealth, Rosalea says.
Rosalea Hamilton: Any opportunities for nation states and the leaders of any nation to meet and to discuss global issues, opportunities for collaboration, and trade is always a good thing. I think it can transcend this very negative historical experience and they can rise above through a process of reparatory justice, through a process of reconciliation, a process of honest reflection of what has happened, and a commitment to avoid and to prevent any kind of repetition of that past.
Malika Bilal: But is that what the Crown wants? Are they ready for that? When Barbados cut ties with the queen, King Charles was still prince and he brought up Britain’s history of slavery in his speech.
King Charles: From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.
Malika Bilal: It was something, but not an apology, and months later Prince William – presumed to be the next king – visited the Caribbean, too. He faced protests in more than one country. They even had to re-route at one point.
Newsreel: In a small village in Belize, the duke and duchess of Cambridge are simply not welcome.
Malika Bilal: But he repeated his father’s words about slavery almost verbatim.
Prince William: I strongly agree with my father, the prince of Wales, who said in Barbados last year that the appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history. I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent and it should never have happened.
Malika Bilal: But for many Jamaicans, like Rosalea, it’s not enough and the fact that there was no formal apology under Elizabeth II is a problem.
Rosalea Hamilton: For me, it’s a missed opportunity we didn’t get a formal apology that could have started a process of reparatory justice. And I think coming from her, it would have been a profound statement, given the extent of respect and love that she had across the world. It’s when we begin to put specific and deliberate arrangements in place to put an end to modern-day slavery, modern-day discrimination and racist behaviour that I think we can begin to see direct benefits. It’s a difficult task, but it is possible because there’s hope now. This moment creates an opportunity for her children and grandchildren to rethink their role in the modern world, in the context of what has happened in the past. It is my hope that that discussion will take place and that an elected leader could rise to the leadership of the Commonwealth.
Malika Bilal: For many like Roselea, they see hope in the monarchy’s evolution, but balancing society’s needs for the future and clinging to the traditions of the past has always been a struggle for this centuries-old institution. That’s what Dr Owens says. Queen Elizabeth faced this conundrum head-on at her coronation.
Newsreel: There are calls for the queen to show herself. “We want the queen,” they shout.
Malika Bilal: The event had never been televised before.
Ed Owens: Initially, the monarch and those around her were very reluctant. They were concerned about desacralising this very sacred moment in the life of the monarch when they are crowned. Eventually, the prime minister of the day, Winston Churchill, persuades the monarch, Elizabeth II, that it is right that she be crowned in full view of the public and that the television cameras are let into Westminster Abbey and that’s because members of the public had been writing to their MPs and demanding that they’re able to participate in this event. So, they let the public in.
Malika Bilal: Then, when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash –
Newsreel: Confirmation that Diana, princess of Wales, has in fact been killed in that car accident in Paris.
Malika Bilal: The public again wanted a response from the queen.
Ed Owens: They want to see the queen go on the record and tell us that she cared about Diana, as was the case in 1997. The monarch has had to bow to public pressure and I think the fact that ultimately Elizabeth II was responsive, that she did recognize the need to do something different, just shows that ultimately this institution has to stay in tune with public feeling if it is to survive.
Malika Bilal: And quite recently, Queen Elizabeth was facing demands from the public to address accusations of racism within her own family.
Ed Owens: The Oprah interview, where Harry and Meghan spoke very candidly about their experiences being members of the British royal family.
Meghan Markle: In those months when I was pregnant, all around this same time – so, we had in tandem, the conversation of he won’t be given security, he’s not gonna be given a title, and also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.
Ed Owens: I think there was a certain anticipation that someone within the British royal family would come out and say something, especially regarding the allegations of racism made by Harry and Meghan in their interview with Oprah Winfrey. And we saw that actually with the duke of Cambridge, Prince William, who came out and on the record, stated that the British royal family is not a racist family.
Press: Can you just let me know, is the royal family a racist family, sir?
Prince William: We’re very much not a racist family.
Ed Owens: But nevertheless, this interview with all its details about the inner workings of monarchy was very candid. It was very open, more open indeed than any previous royal interview and I think did much to expose how that institution works and I can’t imagine that the queen was very pleased, but nevertheless, she and her advisors responded quite deftly. They continued to hold out an olive branch to Harry and Meghan, essentially trying to make peace with them, integrate them into the institution in a way that was manageable whilst also respecting the fact that they wanted to keep their own distance from it.
Malika Bilal: Charles, as king, may not have the same luck, Dr Owens says.
Ed Owens: And unfortunately for the new King Charles, he can’t compete with that. He doesn’t have the same kind of charm and appeal.
Malika Bilal: And all these questions remain: questions of the Commonwealth’s future and who will lead these countries now that the queen has died. Will the monarchy apologise for slavery? Will there be reparations? Will the Windsors address lingering questions of racism, and ultimately, will the monarchy survive?
Ed Owens: And so, I think, it really remains to be seen whether or not that public sentiment, that love and affection that many members of the public have expressed for Elizabeth II, whether that successfully transfers, in what I expect to be quite a difficult period for the British monarchy as it embraces this moment of change.
Malika Bilal: And that’s The Take.
This episode was produced by Amy Walters and Ruby Zaman, with Alexandra Locke, Ney Alvarez, Negin Owliaei, Chloe K. Li and Malika Bilal. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Adam Abou-Gad and Aya Elmileik are our engagement producers. And Ney Alvarez is our head of audio. We’ll be back.
Host: Malika Bilal
This episode was produced by Amy Walters and Ruby Zaman with Alexandra Locke, Negin Owliaei, and Chloe K Li. Alex Roldan is our sound designer, and Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is our head of audio.