World·Royal Fascinator

What can the Commonwealth do? Why questions loom over its role, despite the Queen's devotion

As much as Queen Elizabeth holds out hope that the Commonwealth "remains an influential force for good in our world for generations to come," there has also been longstanding debate and questions over the role and relevance of the organization.

Monarch sees 54-member organization as a 'point of connection, co-operation and friendship'

Prince William, left, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, right, talk with Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as they arrive for a service on Commonwealth Day at Westminster Abbey in London on Monday. Queen Elizabeth was not at the service. (Daniel Leal/The Associated Press)

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The dedication Queen Elizabeth has long had to the Commonwealth was front and centre the other day as the annual Commonwealth Day service brought people together in Westminster Abbey, even though she wasn't there. 

Concerns about mobility for the 95-year-old monarch appeared to be behind her decision to stay away, but a written message from her emphasized her longstanding interest in the organization that includes 54 member countries.

"Our family of nations continues to be a point of connection, co-operation and friendship. It is a place to come together to pursue common goals and the common good, providing everyone with the opportunity to serve and benefit," she said.

"On this special day for our family. … I hope we can deepen our resolve to support and serve one another, and endeavour to ensure the Commonwealth remains an influential force for good in our world for generations to come."

As much as the Queen holds out that hope, there has also been longstanding debate and questions over the role and relevance of the organization.

Queen Elizabeth walks past Commonwealth flags in St. George's Hall at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, to mark Commonwealth Day in this image that was issued on March 6, 2021. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

"Unlike other international organizations, the Commonwealth does not really have a core role or mission. It is a rather shapeless organization," said Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University in Wales, via email.

"Yet, perhaps due to the direct interest of the Queen, it still exists today. It does some good work on governance, election observation and in supporting smaller states."

But if you look at other issues of the day, ones where strong international leadership or organizing across borders could reap great reward, and the Commonwealth doesn't leap to the fore.

"Take the three big challenges of our time," said Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of vaccines in the developing world, climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In each case, there would be an opportunity for the Commonwealth to develop a strong, united position. It hasn't happened yet.

Take climate change, for example.

"Over the last decade or so, the Commonwealth has talked more and more about climate change, but you know it was very notable at the COP conference in Glasgow [last fall] that Commonwealth states took widely differing lines," Murphy said over Zoom from London.

"If [it had] been really serious about climate change, it would have held a heads of government meeting online ahead of COP and focused on that issue. It didn't."

Prince Charles arrives as a guest of Commonwealth secretary general Patricia Scotland at the annual Commonwealth Day reception at Marlborough House, the home of the Commonwealth secretariat in London on Monday. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

There is the Commonwealth secretariat, its main governmental agency, and its secretary general, Patricia Scotland, but Murphy suggests that for myriad reasons, strong central leadership on such issues is not a hallmark of the organization.

"Member states have always been very reluctant to give the secretariat very much convening power and to give the secretary general very much convening power, and there are strong reasons of state, reasons of realpolitik over Ukraine, for example, for member states to go their own way," said Murphy. 

"And that's the big structural problem of the Commonwealth, that it's really the consequence of a devolution of power from the former [British] empire into nation states and those nation states do not want to return any powers to the centre.

"So, unlike the EU, which has been able to present a sort of a common front and agree on common positions over Ukraine, the Commonwealth just lacks the capacity to do that."

Murphy says it's not the role of the Queen, either, to provide political leadership for the Commonwealth.

"What the Queen has done very effectively throughout her reign is to highlight what she sees as the importance of the family, what you call the family of the Commonwealth, and she uses that term again in her message," he said.

"She sees the kind of dialogue that takes place between Commonwealth members as good in itself, and it may well be in some sort of tacit way, but it's not the role of the Queen or any other member of the Royal Family, really, to suggest that the Commonwealth should be adopting particular issues or taking a particular line."

Prince William and Kate attend the service Monday at Westminster Abbey in London. (Daniel Leal/The Associated Press)

Still, Commonwealth ties will be on the minds of members of the Royal Family as they travel this year on royal visits that will also help to mark Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee, recognizing her 70 years as monarch.

One higher-profile visit kicked off Saturday, with Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, in the Caribbean, with stops in Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas.

In some quarters, the week-long trip has been seen as a mission in particular to keep Jamaica — where there have been strong republican rumblings — as a Commonwealth realm, with the Queen as head of state.

Murphy doesn't see it that way.

"Although the British press is presenting this as an attempt to save the realms, I don't think the Palace has ever been really … determined to save that system of realms of the monarchy in the Caribbean, or anywhere else. I think what's always mattered to the Queen is not the realms, it's the Commonwealth, and that's what the Palace is worried about."

The visit comes about four months after Prince Charles was in Barbados as the country became a republic within the Commonwealth, replacing the Queen as head of state.

Prince Charles joins Barbados President Sandra Mason, centre, and Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, left, in a toast during a reception on Nov. 30, 2021, in Bridgetown, Barbados. (Jonathan Brady/Getty Images)

"The visits to the Bahamas and Jamaica in particular are an example of the Royal Family providing a reminder of what they lose should they choose to become a republic," said Prescott. "Although it must be emphasized that the Queen, other members of the Royal Family and the U.K. government have always said decisions about the future are matters for them."

The lack of overseas visits over the past two years has perhaps made it more difficult for the Royal Family "to do what has been expected of them," said Prescott. 

"It may be that to make up for lost time, we may see a few more of these tours in the months ahead."

Catching up with Canadians

Queen Elizabeth receives Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an audience at Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, on March 7, 2022. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

Queen Elizabeth may be staying close to home, but Canadians have featured prominently among the few who have gone to see her lately at Windsor Castle.

A week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met the Queen, she welcomed Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and her husband, Whit Fraser. (There's more about that visit below.)

The visit from Trudeau garnered significant attention because it was the Queen's first in-person meeting after her COVID-19 diagnosis. 

Observers were also busy reading significance into the choice of flowers in the background, given the bouquet's yellow-and-blue hues, and how it matched the colours of the Ukraine flag — something thought unlikely to be a coincidence.

Trudeau spoke warmly of his meeting with the Queen.

"She was as insightful and perspicacious as ever, very interested in what is going on, asked me all sorts of questions about Canada," he said during a news conference at 10 Downing Street.

"We had a really useful — for me, anyway — conversation about global events, as we always do."

Murphy said the Queen "always seems very pleased" to see Trudeau.

He has met her numerous times, dating back to his childhood in the 1970s, when his father, Pierre, was prime minister. 

"There was often a rather difficult relationship with Pierre Trudeau and … very clear signals that the Palace sometimes thought that Pierre Trudeau treated royal protocol rather lightly and was too open with his republican sentiments," said Murphy. "But … you get this very warm vibe between the Queen and Justin Trudeau."

Murphy said there's a sense that over time, Elizabeth has "softened a little" in her public demeanour, something that was on display in the Trudeau visit. 

"She has a sort of rather formal edge to her and yet the body language in that … personal audience just seemed really kind of warm and personal." 

Reconciliation and 'real history'

Queen Elizabeth welcomes Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and her husband, Whit Fraser, for tea at Windsor Castle on Tuesday. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon sat down with the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault at Canada House in London the day after meeting the Queen. Our friends at CBC Politics had a report out of that interview.

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon says she told Queen Elizabeth that Canada's history books should be rewritten to reflect the facts about the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people.

"I was talking to her about the various situations like in Canada," Simon told Arsenault after meeting the Queen. 

"The historical wrongs of the past and how we needed to change Canada's history books so that young people could learn what the real history is, without necessarily pointing fingers.

"We talked about reconciliation and I did talk about the need for healing in our country and to have a better understanding and a better relationship between Indigenous people and other Canadians."

Simon said she felt that the Queen was well-informed on issues affecting Canada, including the protests in Ottawa by anti-vaccine mandate demonstrators.

"I think she found it difficult to understand," Simon said of the Queen's reaction to the blockades. "It's like the Ukraine crisis — she finds that difficult to understand."

WATCH | Gov. Gen. Mary Simon on meeting the Queen and the crisis in Ukraine:

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon on meeting the Queen, crisis in Ukraine

1 year ago
Duration 8:16
Gov. Gen Mary Simon talks to Adrienne Arsenault about her first meeting with the Queen, the war in Ukraine and how Canada could do more.

Simon said the Queen told her she knows what it's like to live in a city under siege, with air raid sirens going off at all hours.

"During the years of the Hitler regime, I guess she was very much affected by that, and she, I think, could almost see some similarities happening, and she talked about that," Simon said.

Simon said she congratulated the Queen on her Platinum Jubilee and the two talked about how they've both recovered recently from COVID-19.

"It was a wonderful day," she said. "I think, one of my best days since I became a human on this Earth.

"It was very heartwarming and she was very welcoming and she was very sharp and talked a lot about, you know, her own children and her grandchildren and also about the situation we're facing in Ukraine. 

"That was at the top of her mind … and [she is] very worried about what's going to be happening to people in Ukraine."

Simon said she herself is concerned about Ukraine and is hoping to connect with Ukrainians as she travels across Canada.

The Governor General said that while she is not familiar with how the immigration process works for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, government processes can always be made easier.

"I think we need to look at how we bring in people from other countries and make it perhaps a little bit more simpler," she said. 

"I know that when we have to fill out forms from the Indigenous community, people always find it very difficult, even though it's within our own country. So I can't imagine what it's like for people coming into the country."

Royally quotable

"This was meant to be." 

Sophie, Countess of Wessex, meets 90-year-old Edna Farley in person after having spoken with her on the phone regularly during the pandemic as part of a volunteer check-in and chat line. 

Royal reads

  1. The royal art collection, which is held in trust by Queen Elizabeth, has withdrawn permission for three swords to be put on display in Moscow, thus becoming involved in a larger cultural boycott of Russia. [The Guardian]

  2. The civil case involving sexual abuse allegations against Prince Andrew in the U.S. is formally ending with his payment of a financial settlement to his accuser, Virginia Giuffre, according to court documents filed in New York City. [BBC]

  3. An embroidered greeting card made by Queen Elizabeth when she was a child is to be auctioned off. [ITV] 

  4. Prince Harry is brushing up on his Dutch language skills ahead of the Invictus Games in The Hague in April. [ITV]

  5. Sometimes when you're having lunch, it wouldn't hurt to make sure everything on the plate beside you really is for your own consumption. At least that could have been the case for a former U.K. health secretary who unwittingly ate biscuits meant for the Queen's corgis as he sat next to Elizabeth during a lunch at Windsor Castle. [The Guardian]

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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