In a sure sign that normality is back, the Royals are off on their travels. Next month, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge embark upon a twelve-day official visit to the Caribbean. If Putin conquers all of Europe, then at least they’ll be safe.
And yet, at the same time, my heart sinks. You see, this isn’t just any royal tour — it’s a rescue mission. The itinerary takes in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Belize — all countries where Her Majesty the Queen happens to be head of state. But for how much longer?
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Last year, Barbados declared itself a republic — and so it looks like Kate and Wills have been dispatched to shore-up the remaining monarchies in the region. Officially, the tour is about environmental issues, but no one’s fooled. This is very obviously a royal version of Operation Save Big Dog. And I’m not sure that’s at all wise.
For a start, it raises the temperature. One moment, you’re a Bahamian or a Jamaican getting on with your day, the next a British Prince turns up and suddenly you’re forced to question why you have foreigner as a head of state.
Meanwhile, back home, all the wrong people will be milking the issue. That small band of fervent Remainers who take unwholesome pleasure from any hint of British humiliation will be overjoyed. Last week, they enjoyed a cheap thrill when the Russian foreign minister monstered Liz Truss in Moscow; so imagine what they’ll make of Prince William begging for his granny’s job in Jamaica. The spectacle of the Queen getting the sack from multiple countries would suit the declinists down to the ground. So much for Global Britain, they’ll chirp.
The solution, of course, is not to rise to the bait. That isn’t to say we should applaud the end of monarchy in Her Majesty’s far-flung realms; but we must accept that any such decision is none of our business. Indeed, Brexiteers, more than anyone, should support the right of a country to assert its independence in whatever way it deems appropriate.
Besides, there’s nothing new to see here. Most of the nations that have gained their independence from Britain opted for their own heads of state. Some of them took their time getting around to it. The Maltese waited ten years, the Sri Lankans 14 and and the Mauritians 24. When Barbados became independent in 1966, the island’s first Prime Minister warned against “loitering on colonial premises after closing time”. But, in the event, the Barbadians waited 55 years.
I don’t blame them for hesitating. Having a head of state is an awkward business. Do you go for a powerful, but potentially polarising, figure like the Americans? Or do you go down the purely ceremonial route and end up with some has-been politician or boring academic? It’s no wonder that monarchy retains its sparkle.
However, if you haven’t got a royal family of your own, where do you get one? Newly sovereign nations used to borrow minor royals from other countries. Today, Harry and Meghan might fancy a crack at Canada, but sadly the royal transfer window has long since closed. And so, for fourteen countries — from Antigua and Barbuda to Tuvalu — the default option is to carry on with the same monarch as the British.
Which is fine, I’m sure we don’t mind sharing. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this isn’t an deeply odd arrangement. In fact, it’s very nearly unique. Apart from Elizabeth II, only one other person in the world today serves as head of state in more than one country: Emmanuel Macron, who by virtue of being President of France is also a co-prince of Andorra.
So if any or all the remaining realms opt for a more conventional arrangement, we shouldn’t take it personally. Replacing the Queen with someone who actually lives in the country is part and parcel of expressing sovereignty.
Yet sorting out a local head of state isn’t the only piece of post-imperial paperwork to be dealt with. The constitutional relics of the British Empire can be found across the world. Take the Union Jack, which can still be found on the flags of four sovereign nations besides the UK, not to mention several Canadian provinces and Hawaii. It would be understandable if these nations and territories wanted a flag of entirely local design. In fact, that’s what the New Zealand government proposed in 2016, though it was rejected in a referendum.
But if they ever change their minds, then, again, we Brits shouldn’t take it personally. One of the things that most annoyed Brexit voters in 2016 was the EU’s fatuous habit of stamping its flag where it wasn’t wanted — on our passports, on our number plates and on public works built with our money. I’m delighted that other countries have freely chosen to make the Union Jack their own; but should they come to think differently, then a redesign wouldn’t just deserve our understanding, but our respect. After all, we didn’t mind when the Canadians changed their flag in 1965.
Indeed, contrary to the ravings of progressive ideologues, the British are far from obsessed with the Empire. It is the contemporary Left — not the Right — that can’t let the past go. Yet there is one thing that both sides still fail to understand, which is that the post-imperial era is also heading into the rear view.
As we’re discovering with Brexit, breaking free from a deeply embedded political order takes place suddenly in some respects and gradually in others. But while a transitional phase is inevitable, it is not interminable. Sooner or later, the new order is complete. From that point, it is time to look to the future.
We therefore need to think about our post-imperial institutions — and especially the Commonwealth. The organisation was created as a successor to empire, a way of fostering relationships with and among newly independent nations. But in the years and decades ahead, the living memories of that time are destined to dwindle away — a fact that will be painfully underlined when our Queen’s long reign comes to an end.
So while there’s every good reason to cultivate friendships between nations tied together by family, language and common values, basing that community on a long defunct empire is going to become irrelevant. If it is to survive for longer than the monarchies of the Caribbean, the Commonwealth will need to move on. The membership of Mozambique and Rwanda, neither of which were ever part of the British empire, should be taken as a precedent not an exception.
George VI was the first head of the Commonwealth. His daughter was the second; Charles will take over when the time comes. It is an extraordinary thing, based on nothing more than the continued respect of 54 independent and equal nations for one family. How long will that respect endure? There’s something for William to think about while he plays with his son on the beach.