Huffpost Canada ca
Tim Knight Headshot

Part 5: Can the Commonwealth Survive Without the Queen?

Posted: Updated:

Tim Knight, who started out British and became Canadian, writes the regular HuffPost column Watching the Watchdog. Last Monday he began a six-part series on the Queen of Canada -- whose Diamond Jubilee celebration starts this weekend.

He uses Elizabeth's Canadian titles as a focus for the series:

"Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith."

To try to understand who this Queen of Canada is, what she does and how she does it, Knight wrote a background last Monday. On Tuesday, he started examining her Canadian titles one by one.

Since then he's looked into the next words of the Queen's title. Today he explores the fifth and sixth parts.

... And Her Other Realms and Territories ...

Elizabeth is hereditary Queen of 16 independent, sovereign states known as her realms and territories, nearly all former British colonies.

Members are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Belize, Granada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea and the United Kingdom.

She's not been particularly successful at keeping these realms and territories together -- inheriting 32, but now reigning over only half that many. Even so, 137-million people live in them

Elizabeth came dangerously close to losing even her British realm when Princess Diana died. For too long she refused to show what the British people considered proper respect and her popularity tanked. One Briton out of every four called for the end to the monarchy.

At the last moment she attended Diana's funeral, bowed her head, and her ratings recovered.

Symbolically, her job in the realms and territories -- whose military fight and sometimes die in her name -- is to guarantee stable governance and be a nonpartisan safeguard against abuse of power.

Her actual job when she visits, however, is to pretty much do what the local prime minister tells her. She reads speeches written by other people, signs documents, cuts ribbons, plants trees and shakes thousands of hands.

The rule is: Don't touch her, but if she puts out a hand, shake it. Gently. And don't speak to her unless she starts the chat.

Rather optimistically, Buckingham Palace claims Elizabeth is "equally at home in all her realms".

However, while she herself may feel at home, most people consider her just a nice old English lady in strange hats who drops by occasionally, reads clichéd speeches in a peculiar, super-upper-class English accent -- rather badly at that -- and probably does no real harm.

Resentment over slavery and the centuries of British colonialism that followed still simmers in many of these nations.

Even so, there are still many subjects in her realms proud of their inherited British history, values and traditions. Two of them, New Zealand and Australia, recently made it clear they want to keep the monarchy, at least for now.

But most realms and territories will likely end their British-based monarchical system when she goes. In fact, a recent online poll in Canada reported two out of three Canadians would prefer a republic after Elizabeth.

Already, Jamaica's prime minister has announced plans to turn the Caribbean island into a republic even before that. She calls Elizabeth "a beautiful lady" but adds in patois: "I think, time come."

... Head of the Commonwealth ...

The 54-member Commonwealth of Nations was born after World War ll out of the ashes of the British Empire -- the greatest colonial power in all of history.

It includes some two billion people, almost a third of the planet's population. Amongst its members are all sixteen of the realms and territories over which Elizabeth is Queen, including founding member Canada. (First Commonwealth Secretary-General, a sort of CEO, was Arnold Smith from Toronto.)

In the remaining forty-eight independent nation-states in the Commonwealth, Elizabeth is simply head, a sort of honourary president-for-life job she inherited from her father, George Vl.

The Commonwealth isn't a political union. Instead, it's a sort of gentlemen's club in which countries of different size, wealth and power -- but shared English language -- get together more or less as equals for mutual support and occasional squabbles.

Where other countries exchange embassies, Commonwealth countries uniquely send high commissioners to each other's capitals.

In her 1957 Christmas broadcast, her first on TV, Elizabeth talked of her dedication to both Great Britain and the Commonwealth:

"I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else -- I can give my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations."

Commonwealth nations, like her realms and territories, have generally been both stable and democratic.

That's because the club stipulates that members be functioning democracies:

"... committed to democracy, good governance, human rights, gender equality, and a more equitable sharing of the benefits of globalization."

Not all, in fact, always honour these admirable aims. Zimbabwe, for instance, was kicked out in 2003 because of egregious human rights abuses under President Robert Mugabe.

Most significant legacies from the British Empire to today's Commonwealth are variations of the English language, English common law and Westminster democracy.

Then, of course, there's soccer, the world's most popular sport, and the arcane and very British sports of cricket and rugby. Canada is one of very few Commonwealth countries where these sports are less than national passions.

When in the Commonwealth, (she's made 173 tours) Elizabeth's job is, once again, to make speeches written by other people (in this case, lauding the "Commonwealth Family") and do the realms and territories thing -- sign documents, cut ribbons, plant trees and shake thousands of hands.

As with Her realms and territories, many Commonwealth nations have unhappy memories of slavery and colonialism. Perhaps she had this past in mind when she ascended to the throne in 1952 and declared:

"The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace."

Unlike the realms and territories, however, Elizabeth's successor will not automatically become head of the Commonwealth. In fact, it's likely that if the position isn't eliminated entirely, some other figurehead will swiftly replace her.

It's entirely possible though, that the Commonwealth is no longer particularly relevant to the modern world and will slowly fade away into history.

The next and final installment will examine the last part of Elizabeth's title "... Defender of the Faith" and Knight's summing up: "She's kept the faith in a way her final title, Defender Of The Faith, doubtless never intended". Stay tuned.