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King Charles' grip on the Commonwealth is slipping. He should let it go.

Samantha Grindell   

King Charles' grip on the Commonwealth is slipping. He should let it go.

King Charles III could see his power over the Commonwealth dwindle. Maps showing the countries that have ditched — and kept — the crown prove his energy is better spent elsewhere.

When Queen Elizabeth II died, her eldest son, Charles, became monarch of the United Kingdom, inheriting his mother's title, throne, and power.

He also assumed the role of head of the Commonwealth, which "exists to foster international cooperation and trade links between people all over the world," the royal family's website says. As head, Charles is a "symbolic and unifying" leader who ensures the coalition of 56 member nations stays connected. Today, most member nations are republics that are governed independently of the crown, but there are 14 members known as realms where Charles is still head of state.

Charles is the third person to hold the Commonwealth title, after his mother and grandfather King George VI. The royal family's website says the position is not hereditary like most of the king's roles, but the Commonwealth leaders voted unanimously in 2018 to make him head following the Queen's death.

The UK's hold on the realms, though, is flimsier than ever as the Commonwealth's history of imperialism has become harder to ignore in the wake of global protests for racial justice.

Experts told Insider that it's likely more realms would remove the king as sovereign, or head of state, amid his reign and that, unlike his predecessors, it would best serve the king to focus less on the Commonwealth if he wanted the monarchy to survive in the modern world.

The Commonwealth was founded as territories under the British Empire started to gain differing levels of freedom — though the organization as we know it today wouldn't come about until after India gained independence from Britain in 1947. As the Commonwealth's website says, India wanted to become a republic, meaning it would be a part of the Commonwealth but not swear allegiance to the British monarch.

In 1949, the UK opened the door for other colonies and territories to join the organization without recognizing the British monarch as its head of state. Dozens of countries followed India's lead in the years after. According to Time, eight republics and 65 colonies, territories, and protectorates were part of the Commonwealth at the time of Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.

But while the British Empire crumbled as it began to lose its hold over territories, dregs of its legacy remained as some former colonies chose to become realms within the Commonwealth instead of fully independent nations, with the British monarch still serving as their head of state. At the Commonwealth's height, Elizabeth was the head of state of 31 realms.

As PBS reported, the nations that retained the British ruler as their constitutional monarch may have seen the connection to the UK as a path to "political legitimacy" and a sign of internal stability, while the realms served as a demonstration of power for the British monarchy.

But the Commonwealth's roots in colonialism and historical ties to slavery weighed on realms over time, leading some countries to remove the British monarch as head of state. After Barbados removed the Queen as its sovereign in 2021, other countries followed, and, as of 2022, 42 of the 56 member nations were independent.

In addition to being head of the Commonwealth, Charles is sovereign of 14 realms now that he's king: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

Membership in the Commonwealth is still appealing to some smaller nations, such as Togo and Gabon, which both joined the organization in 2022, as it gives them greater political power.

But there's no benefit to being a realm over being a member nation, which the realms seemed to become acutely aware of as the monarchy changed power.

Seven of those countries have recently indicated they may remove the British monarch as sovereign in the coming years, including smaller nations like Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, the Bahamas, and Jamaica, as well as bigger Commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

The Queen's death is a contributing factor for many of these nations, as some say her grandmotherly persona made it easier to put aside the Commonwealth's roots in colonialism.

"We love this particular Queen Elizabeth," Adeyela Bennett, a nonprofit business owner from the Bahamas, told Insider's DeArbea Walker in 2021. "But when we sit there and we're honest with ourselves, we have to say these people colonized us. They're imperialists."

The British royal family's legacy is inextricably tied to imperialism and slavery: Queen Elizabeth I actively supported the slave trader Capt. John Hawkins in the 1500s, and Queen Elizabeth II never apologized for that connection when she was monarch. Charles and Prince William, who is heir to the throne, have also stopped short of apologizing; instead expressing "sorrow" over slavery.

But William and his wife, Kate Middleton, didn't make a strong case for the realms last year on a Caribbean tour of Belize, the Bahamas, and Jamaica.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were met with protests from citizens who wanted the monarchy to speak out against its historical ties to slavery. The two didn't help matters by being captured in what commenters called "tone-deaf" photos, such as a photo of them greeting Black children through a fence.

Kristen Meinzer, a royal watcher, told Insider that Charles' younger son, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan Markle, might have been able to help the royal family distance itself from its legacy of imperialism if they had not stepped back as working royals in January 2020 after facing harassment from the British tabloids and a lack of support from within the monarchy. Meghan is biracial, and Harry spent much of his adulthood in African countries.

"They would have been the ultimate ambassadors for a new era," she said.

While many countries may want to remove Charles as sovereign, it may be difficult to make that a reality.

"We can expect that some will depart, but it's not always easy for them," Bob Morris, who studies royal issues at University College London, said.

Many countries must vote on the decision to become republics, with citizens deciding rather than government officials. Some nations have already tried — and failed — to remove the monarch as their head of state, such as Australia in 1999 and St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2009.

"It was thought to be an elite project that wasn't going to change the lives of ordinary people," Morris, an honorary senior research associate in the Constitution Unit at the college, said of the failed referendum in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The crown doesn't have much impact on the everyday lives of citizens living in realms today, so voters may not have felt motivated to engage on the matter, according to Morris.

As for Australia, Morris told Insider the move failed primarily because government officials couldn't agree on what the country's new model for a government without the British monarch as head of state would look like.

But for smaller countries, where a referendum is easier to pass, removing the king as sovereign will be top of mind.

Elizabeth was passionate about the Commonwealth during her reign.

"The Queen was very keen on the Commonwealth and was a great supporter of it," Morris said. "It was an area where she could show some initiative to it."

But because the realms' attitude toward the monarchy has changed over time, it's unlikely Charles will show the same enthusiasm for the realms as the Queen did. The king has previously said he believes the decision to become a republic should lie with each realm, the BBC reported.

"It's not something the UK can or should influence, and that has been the policy of the successive monarchs as well," Morris said. "He will have no publicly expressed view beyond saying this is a matter for the states themselves."

When it comes to the Commonwealth, Marlene Koenig, a royal historian, anticipates the royal family will focus its energy on bigger realms such as Australia or Canada.

"I do think that you will see William and Catherine sent to Australia," she said, as a tour would give them the opportunity to strengthen its ties to the UK.

Since the realms are likely to slip from the king's grasp anyway, experts said it's in Charles' best interest to focus his energy on strengthening the monarchy and the Commonwealth as institutions.

For instance, he could prioritize diversifying and modernizing the organizations, which he has already done through steps like meeting with faith leaders from multiple religions at Buckingham Palace last September. In the meeting, the king told leaders he sees it as his duty to "protect the diversity of our country," setting him apart from previous monarchs.

Considering Elizabeth never apologized for the monarchy's historical ties to the slave trade, Charles' willingness to investigate the monarchy's colonial past is a welcome change, experts said. The BBC reported on April 7 that Charles was giving the University of Manchester and Historic Royal Palaces "full access to the Royal Archives and the Royal Collection" as they looked into the monarchy's ties to the slave trade.

"This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously," the palace told the BBC.

Losing the realms doesn't have to break the monarchy, and their departure could help to usher in a new era of leadership for Charles. If he directly acknowledges the institution's ties to colonialism and takes concrete steps to show the monarchy will no longer profit off its history of imperialism, he can present a monarchy that fits in the modern world.

Even the language the king uses to speak about its colonial history, Meinzer told Insider, will have a huge influence on how the public sees the monarchy.

"He needs to be more direct and less passive with his language," she said. "He can't speak in the passive voice like, 'That was regretful.' He needs to say, 'We as the monarchy acknowledge that this was reprehensible. What we spearheaded was not acceptable.'"

She added: "He does have to start being more direct because these questions aren't being held inside anymore."

Indeed, maintaining the monarchy's relevance won't rest on Charles' skill at holding on to every scrap of power Elizabeth had; it will lie in his ability to reshape the monarchy for a modern era.

This story is part of "Charles in Charge," our package of stories all about King Charles' coronation. Read the rest here.



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