In February 1952 Elizabeth II acceded to the throne following the death of her father, George VI. While the role of Head of the Commonwealth is not a hereditary one, she also assumed the position.

At her accession, the Commonwealth was a body of eight states, including Canada, Australia, India, and Pakistan, which had been empire territories. Its modern form as a group of free and equal members had been established only three years previously when the London Declaration was signed.

The organisation now has a membership of 54 countries, with nearly a third of the world’s population. Only two members—Rwanda and Mozambique—were not formerly part of the British empire.

This Insight describes the Commonwealth’s changing role over the last 70 years, and the role of the monarchy.

Establishing the modern Commonwealth

The Commonwealth’s origins trace back to the 1926 Balfour Declaration, where British empire dominions such as Canada and South Africa were designated autonomous communities.

With independence for the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and India’s desire to become a republic while retaining some links to Britain, the London Declaration was agreed in 1949.

This removed “British” from the Commonwealth’s name and amended its membership from being based on allegiance to the Crown to one where the monarch would be recognised as Head of the Commonwealth.

This was significant in allowing republics to retain their links to Britain. The 34 republics now constitute the majority of Commonwealth states (five others have a different monarch to the Queen).

Negotiating the Commonwealth

In the post-war period, the UK had to come to terms with being only one of many Commonwealth voices. In 1962, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan expressed fear at the organisation becoming a “miniature United Nations,” with multiple competing interests.

The 1956 Suez Crisis, where Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt to seize back a newly nationalised Suez Canal, showed that Britain’s defence interests were no longer the same as other Commonwealth members. Both Canada and India criticised the action.

While the UK’s initial attempts to join the European Economic Community in the 1950s had also sought to protect its preferential trade system with the Commonwealth, by the time of the UK’s entry in 1973, Commonwealth states were drifting apart, and not just economically.

Addressing White-minority rule

From the 1950s, battles over apartheid in South Africa and White-minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) focused Commonwealth debate on how best to progress human rights among its members. In these debates, Britain sometimes found itself at odds with other members.

Commonwealth opposition to apartheid caused South Africa to withdraw from the organisation in 1961. The country did not re-join until 1994, after apartheid had ended. The Commonwealth did not always act as one on this issue, however, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opposing calls from other members to place economic sanctions against South Africa in the mid-1980s.

In 1965, Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain also forced another long-running crisis, with Commonwealth members opposing Rhodesia’s White-minority rule.

Seeking reform in Rhodesia also divided the Commonwealth. Prime Minister Harold Wilson described the 1966 Commonwealth meeting on Rhodesia as the “worst ever held.” Both Ghana and Tanzania temporarily broke off relations with the UK in protest of its unwillingness to consider direct intervention. It was not until 1980 that majority rule was established in Zimbabwe.

Promoting democracy and human rights

Two agreements: the 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles and the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration, marked a Commonwealth seeking to work with “renewed vigour” on promoting democracy and human rights.

The Commonwealth has become more activist in this regard: Since the 1980s, Fiji (three times), Pakistan (twice), Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the Maldives have seen their membership suspended or decided to withdraw following criticism of their human rights record.

Much work remains, however. Globally, 69 countries criminalise same-sex sexual relationships, and more than half—36—are Commonwealth states. Many retain legislation introduced in the colonial era—something the UK Government has offered to help countries reform.

In 2013, the Commonwealth also faced criticism for holding the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka, despite human rights abuses occurring towards the end of its civil war in 2009.

The Monarch and the Commonwealth

The Queen has played a largely neutral role as Commonwealth Head, staying out of its major crises. However, she reportedly feared a Commonwealth split if tougher measures were not taken against apartheid-era South Africa.

The London Declaration set out no specific role for the Commonwealth’s Head. As the historian Philip Murphy has written, it has become a more substantial position “very much due to the Queen’s efforts.”

In her role, the Queen pushed to attend CHOGMs when her governments have feared them potentially too controversial. From 1971 to 2015, the Queen missed only two of these biannual meetings.

Between February 1952 to 2015, when the Queen last made an overseas visit, she also visited all but two Commonwealth countries (Cameroon and Rwanda) making near 200 trips and visits to Commonwealth and UK Overseas Territories. With many undertaken in the context of Cold War rivalry and tensions over decolonisation, these visits aimed to sustain the Commonwealth despite its racial and ideological divisions.

There are still fourteen Commonwealth realms where the Monarch retains a ceremonial role as head of state. More states may follow the example of Barbados, which became a republic in 2021.

However, despite the growing number of Commonwealth republics, the Crown’s role as Commonwealth Head seems secure for another generation. While the role of Head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary, in 2018 Charles, Prince of Wales, was appointed the Queen’s designated successor (PDF).

Further reading


About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher in the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs.

Image: The Queen at the Formal opening of CHOGM by Commonwealth Secretariat, under CC BY-NC 2.0

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