The British Crown is losing some of its jewels

Expect more republics like Barbados to come, as Queen Elizabeth II transitions to Prince Charles

One of the recurring duties for Prince Charles has been standing on a dais at handover ceremonies to provide a decorous ending to British rule in a far-off land.

He stood in dress uniform in Hong Kong in 1997, as the heavens opened and China took control. Wearing a coronavirus-appropriate face mask last week, the heir to the British throne performed exactly the same function as Barbados became a republic, removing the ceremonial role of Queen Elizabeth II.

With 15 territories or nations recognising the British monarch as head of state, it is likely to be a role that will continue to feature for Prince Charles, even after he reaches his destiny as king. There is a dwindling list albeit one augmented by the overseas territories, including Pitcairn Island in the Pacific and the Falklands chain in the south Atlantic.

The Elizabethan II era saw the demise of the so-called British Empire, with the Commonwealth largely replacing those bonds. The category that remains is those places where the Queen is head of state. The realms include major nations such as Canada and Australia, as well as smaller island outposts.

In practice, the role of governor general as royal representative means there is a local citizen carrying out the ceremonial duties of head of state. The question remains how long the set-up can continue as fundamentally unfinished business in the unwinding of the empire.

Performing the handover task, Prince Charles has acted as something of a clearing house for historical grievances. In Hong Kong, it was an acknowledgement that the Opium Wars – two 19th-century conflicts fought in China between the reigning Qing dynasty and western colonial powers – and the years of foreign subjection of the Chinese nation to outside control had been wrong. Speaking in Barbados, the 74-year-old addressed directly the “appalling atrocity” of slavery. It was something, he said, that forever stains our history.

The move brought praise not only from loyalists but also campaigners on the issue who seek a historical reckoning. Halima Begum, the chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, told The Guardian: “For Prince Charles to speak so frankly about slavery is actually historic.”

Prince Charles is one step away from the Crown and, thus, has latitude that may not be readily available to his mother.

Within the UK, there is a palpable sense that the transition of royal affairs has become more circumspect. The tumultuous family affairs of the Windsors continue to lap around Prince Charles. And the concern remains that, unlike his mother, Prince Charles will not be able to elevate the role from the controversies both personal and political.

Royal news is objectively one of the UK's greatest global exports. In this context, the Crown’s ability to fascinate provides a live and current link with the countries that the monarchy reigns over.

Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan are interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in this undated handout photo. Reuters

It does not matter that a person in Vancouver and Los Angeles may take the same interest in Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. What is significant on the Canadian side of the border is that there is a cultural conversation, for both good and bad, kept ongoing between the UK-based dynasty and its subjects on the Pacific coast.

There is a maturity and complexity to this kind of connection. When, for instance, Meghan and Harry were contemplating spending long stretches in Vancouver before their breakaway, a telling issue arose.

As royals, it quickly became clear the diplomatic security detail could not just be left behind at Heathrow Airport. For the British taxpayer, the cost of staffing a royal protection unit in another country was prohibitively high. In theory, Canada could step up and provide some or all of the costs on its soil. And while it quickly became clear that Canadians are, on the whole, content with the royal apex to the state system, bearing the costs of a minor member was not on the agenda.

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Prince Charles' accession is bound to be a time of review and examination

In big and small ways, the accession of Prince Charles is bound to be a time of review and examination. He is so acquainted with the issues that he is, perhaps, powerless to stop events taking on a logic of their own. Having trailblazed the dignified and enabling conversation that accompanies a republican switch, Prince Charles is in no real position to work to counteract any moves to bolt.

Then there is the historic pivot point.

It is one thing for the public to tolerate the status quo. It is quite another to actively participate in the enthronement of a new monarch. Countries with a strong republican tradition, such as Australia, seem likely to face another attempt to change the system. In smaller, more unitary systems such as New Zealand, the whole process could shift to a seamless one turning the governor general's post into a presidency.

There is an upside incentive for the states involved. Constitutional conventions, if well constructed, could prove a vehicle for wider modernisation and a national conversation.

Across a diverse range of 15 nations, it is not easy to predict how the shake-out will play out. A worldwide game of thrones is, nonetheless, about to move to a higher level.

Published: December 4th 2021, 2:00 PM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.