Oct 2022

Soul of the Commonwealth

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II had been meticulously planned for many decades, and the Queen herself would have decided that the first lesson be read by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, an institution very close to her heart.

The Commonwealth was founded in 1949, three years before the Queen came to the throne. There were just eight members and an aim to forge bonds between Britain’s former colonies.

Through a myriad of visits and low-key diplomatic charm over the decades, the Queen oversaw the Commonwealth’s growth to its present fifty-six members, all of whom make a commitment to the promotion of peace and prosperity. Nineteen Commonwealth countries are in the Asia-Pacific and 70 per cent of its population is from South Asia.

Overall, 2.5 billion live in Commonwealth countries and, for them, the Queen has been a glue who has ridden above local acrimony that, in the developing world, too often turns to violence.

‘Our queen has been taken to rest by God,’ proclaimed Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister.‘She was the anchor of our Commonwealth, and for PNG, we fondly call her ‘Mama Queen’.’.

The question now is whether King Charles III can continue to strengthen the Commonwealth, particularly at a time of huge global change and when unsavory elements of British colonial history are being exposed to public debate. 

By coincidence, India, the Commonwealth’s most populous member, removed some of the last emblems of British colonialism on the day Queen Elizabeth’s death was announced.

The name of the Delhi road that runs from the presidential palace to India Gate was changed from Rajpath to Kartavya Path, which means Path of Duty. Prime minister Narendra Modi spoke about ‘freedom from yet another symbol of slavery of the British Raj’.

Similar sentiments are resounding elsewhere. Social media has been filled with dark side reminders of British rule,some of which Queen Elizabeth presided over as head of state.

The Commonwealth offers no formal alliances such as defence treaties and trade deals.  It has little  resemblance to NATO, the European Union, ASEAN or other regional and global organisations.

In 2018, when faced with an opportunity to choose a new leader, perhaps by election, perhaps someone brimming with charisma, ideas and ambition, Commonwealth governments opted to stick with what worked, the reliable continuity of the British royal family in the form of, now, King Charles III. That decision was partly brokered by Narendra Modi himself, while simultaneously implementing policies to reject Britain’s lingering legacy from his nation.

On the one hand, much defies logic. There should be little reason that so many post-colonial governments want to join a club watched over by the monarch of the very power which occupied and repressed.

These contradictions and complexities can best be explained through the phenomenon that swept much of the world after the Queen’s death.

How is it that,in a nation claiming to be the mother of modern democracy, an unelected head of state commanded such loyalty that world leaders dropped everything to fly to the funeral, while grieving subjects stood for hours in a miles-long queue to witness the lying-in state– and all of that amid centuries-old ritual and Medieval pageantry?

It is impossible to pigeon-hole what happened last month because each of us was individually impacted with our own thoughts but within a single common strand: the Queen gave us a sense of who we were. 

William Shakespeare, John Donne and other writers refer to the state’s soul, that jumble of ideals and dreams to which any society aspires.

In modern terminology, it is referred to as identity.

The Commonwealth’s ambiguities and paradoxes reflect those of the human condition, and seen through this prism, the monarchy gives it a strengthening presence.

Almost since inception, the Commonwealth’s soul has been represented by Queen Elizabeth II. That mantle has now been passed onto King Charles, who will be seen as its indefinable anchor.

He will need to tread carefully around sensitive issues, particularly colonial history. He is likely to wear more of his heart on his sleeve.

The Commonwealth is not looking for brash revolutionary fervour, but for steadiness and continuity, embellished,from time to time, by the type of royal ritual, discipline and ceremony that so impressed the world at the Queen’s funeral.

King Charles can deliver that. This enigmatic global institution with its dozens of languages, religions and cultures, is fully embracing the new monarch.