The shrinking realm: Queen Elizabeth’s Commonwealth and the future of its nations

LONDON — At its height, the British Empire’s rule oversaw 531 million people — over three continents spanning from North America to Oceania. It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire, but as years passed, the monarchy’s global reach began to decline.

Six years after the devastation of World War I, Britain announced that each member of the Empire would be seen as equal. This meant that the monarchy and its Parliament had no power over the domestic and foreign policies of these “Dominions.”

The officials in formal dress line up around the queen, who is wearing a crinoline and tiara, under a large chandelier.

After World War II, the British Empire would continue to contract, as countries under its colonial rule fought for and gained their independence. In 1949, the British Commonwealth of Nations would no longer ask members to swear allegiance to the crown, and all nations under the umbrella of the association would simply be known as the Commonwealth of Nations.

Elizabethan era

Upon Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne in 1952, the Commonwealth had already lost Ireland, in 1948. Eire gained its autonomy in 1921 after 800 years of British involvement, leaving only the six counties in Northern Ireland, of the 32 counties on the island, as part of the United Kingdom.

During her coronation speech in 1953, the new monarch acknowledged and praised Britain’s imperial past. “I have behind me not only the splendid traditions and the annals of more than a thousand years, but the living strength and majesty of the Commonwealth and Empire,” she said.

The Queen, accompanied by Gov. Gurmukh Nihal Singh, wearing a turban and a beard, shakes hands with a line of dignitaries and military officials.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrive in Jaipur, India, on Jan. 22, 1961, met at the airport by Gov. Gurmukh Nihal Singh. (AP Photo)

Elizabeth, Britain’s longest-serving sovereign, was on the throne seven years longer than Queen Victoria, her great-great grandmother, who oversaw the expansion of Britain's colonial possessions.

“[The] Queen's reign is the kind of grand rebranding for the British Empire, which was originally kind of built on an ideology that dictated that white people and their settler descendants would be in charge,” Dr. Liam Liburd, assistant professor of Black British history at Durham University in England, told Yahoo News.

“The development of the Commonwealth after the Queen's coronation in 1953 can be seen as a kind of consolation prize for the British Empire.”

Decline of the Empire

Through the decades, the Commonwealth would see territories lost and countries depart, with some rejoining. By the 1960s, most of Britain’s colonies in Africa and Asia were independent, although some chose to remain as part of the Commonwealth, an option offered on a voluntary basis.

Queen Elizabeth II greets the front end of an ornate Chinese dragon in Hong Kong during the Royal Tour of 1975. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The queen meets a Chinese dragon dancer in Hong Kong during the Royal Tour of 1975. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Its most important colony in Asia left in 1997, when after 156 years, the U.K. ceded control of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. Today, the British monarch is the head of state of 14 nations, including a collection of islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans that remain as Britain’s colonial possessions.

New king

After the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Commonwealth gained a new leader, in her son and heir, King Charles III.

“She began as queen of the British Empire and became the queen of the British nation, unable, and to some extent unwilling, to come to terms with the loss of empire, and with several Commonwealth nations reconsidering their ties to Britain and to the Commonwealth,” Liburd told Yahoo News.

Prince Charles in bow tie and medals at the microphone surrounded by guests, including one male guest in an embroidered cap and one female guest in an African headdress in an orange print.
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, makes a speech at a dinner for Commonwealth heads of government on June 24 this year in Kigali, Rwanda. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

But how does the future of the Commonwealth look for King Charles’s reign and how, as British Prime Minister Liz Truss described it after the queen’s death, will “our new Carolean age” (from Carolus, the Latin version of Charles) differ from the Elizabethan age? If Queen Victoria built the Empire, will her great-great-great-grandson lose it all?

The future

Last year, Barbados became the world’s newest republic, after its citizens voted to remove the queen as their head of state. Speaking at the event celebrating the new republic, Prince Charles, a guest speaker, acknowledged the “appalling atrocity of slavery” the island had suffered. While Barbados removed the queen as its head of state, it decided to remain a member of the Commonwealth.

Following in the steps of Barbados, six other countries in the Caribbean — Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, the Bahamas, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Kitts and Nevis — also signaled their intent to remove the British monarch as their sovereign.

Prince Charles at the microphone, watched by President Sandra Mason and officials in white military uniforms.
Prince Charles speaks at the presidential inauguration ceremony marking the birth of a new republic in Barbados at Heroes Square in Bridgetown, Barbados, on Nov. 30, 2021, with President Sandra Mason of Barbados seated on his left. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Pool via Reuters)

The news came after two royal tours that were met with protests and public relations disasters. In Belize and Jamaica, locals called for formal apologies from the visiting royal family. “As we saw with Prince William and Princess Kate's Caribbean tour earlier this year, I think things already are changing,” Liburd told Yahoo News. “In lots of ways, the Commonwealth feels a little bit like the monarchy itself. It has a kind of anachronistic, perhaps a leftover, out-of-date, political order.”

Speaking at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda in June, Charles revealed an openness to members on the evolving status of the association. “I want to say clearly, as I have said before, that each member’s constitutional arrangement, as republic or monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide,” he said. “The benefit of long life brings me the experience that arrangements such as these can change, calmly and without rancor.”

Britain's Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge ride in a vintage Land Rover used by Britain's Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Jamaica, as they leave the inaugural Commissioning Parade for service personnel completing the Caribbean Military Academy's Officer Training Programme, on the sixth day of their tour of the Caribbean, Kingston, Jamaica, March 24, 2022. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, ride in a vintage Land Rover Kingston, Jamaica, once used by Queen Elizabeth, as they leave a parade for personnel completing the Caribbean Military Academy's Officer Training Programme, on their tour of the Caribbean on March 24. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Closer to home, Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, proposed a date for another referendum on independence, and talks have been ongoing about Northern Ireland reunifying with the republican south.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told Sky News that he would not hold an independence referendum in his first term, out of “respect and admiration” for the queen. However, he did not rule out the possibility if he was reelected.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the leader of neighboring New Zealand, said that removing the British sovereign was an inevitability, but that it was not a priority of her government. “I’ve made my view plain many times,” Ardern said after the queen’s death. “I do believe that is where New Zealand will head, in time. I believe it is likely to occur in my lifetime.”

As a growing number of countries renounce their ties with the British monarchy, the waning of the Commonwealth reduces Britain’s presence on the world stage.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” is the way William Shakespeare described the burden and responsibility of leadership in the second part of his play "Henry IV." Perhaps this too is how King Charles feels about leading his shrinking realm.