Harry and Meghan's retreat leaves questions hanging over royal relations with the Commonwealth

Prince Harry and Meghan's decision to step back from official duties as senior members of the Royal Family creates uncertainty in the relationship of the monarchy with the Commonwealth, an organization facing questions of its own relevance.

Attendance at Commonwealth service today in London likely to be last official duty for couple

Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, front, with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, behind, attend the annual Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London on Monday. (Phil Harris/The Associated Press)

Amid the anticipation of Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding two years ago, there was a sense the couple was offering the House of Windsor a new window to the future.

They were young and dynamic, and it was thought they had the potential to help invigorate an institution some believe has been too bound by tradition.

Harry's appointment as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador seemed a particularly forward-looking role for him, and Meghan soon joined him with her own Commonwealth appointments.

But their decision to step back from official duties as senior members of the Royal Family effectively cuts some of that off at the knees, and leaves questions looming over the relationship of the monarchy with an organization that faces uncertainty of its own over its relevance and future.

"Harry and Meghan were very much identified as the junior Royals who would play the most prominent role within the Commonwealth in terms of overseas trips and and also fronting up Commonwealth organizations," said Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. "Where that goes, in some cases it's clear, in some cases it isn't."

William and Kate, along with Harry and Meghan, attend the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in March 2019. (Richard Pohle/AFP/Getty Images)

For Harry and Meghan — and the House of Windsor — the Commonwealth was front and centre Monday in London as senior royals attended the annual Commonwealth Service held to mark Commonwealth Day.

"It's not by chance that probably the last occasion that Harry and Meghan, and William, Kate and the Queen and Prince Charles are going to be together at a ceremonial occasion is … for the Commonwealth multi-faith service," said Murphy.

"The Queen and the Royal Family have always demonstrated their commitment to the Commonwealth by turning up at these things."

Fostering 'international co-operation'

Last year, Harry and Meghan also turned up at Canada House in London for a youth-focused event to mark Commonwealth Day. 

It also marked the 70th anniversary of the London Declaration, in which leaders of the Commonwealth countries agreed to be "free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress," with the monarch as its head. 

According to the royal website, the modern Commonwealth, with 53 member countries, exists to "foster international co-operation and trade links between people all over the world."

Meghan, second from right, and Harry are presented with baby gifts by Janice Charette, Canada's high commissioner to the United Kingdom, at Canada House in London in March 2019. (Chris Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)

But there has been debate about the role and relevance of the organization, including concerns some of its members — particularly in parts of Asia and Africa — have questionable records on human rights and democracy.

On their own website, Harry and Meghan note that citizens of Commonwealth countries make up one-third of the world's population, and 60 per cent of them are under 30 years of age.

"The collective strength, passion and perspective of this rising generation present a unique opportunity to bring about positive change — on both a grassroots and global level — today, and in the decades to come," their website says.

The Commonwealth has been a priority for the Queen, and in 2018, its leaders confirmed that her son and heir, Prince Charles, would be the next leader following her.

The future of the Commonwealth

As Murphy sees it, "ironically, and in a way slightly counterintuitively, the monarchy has become more important for the Commonwealth in recent years than it was, say, in the '60s, '70s and '80s."

He said that's because until the beginning of the 1990s, the Commonwealth had a fair amount of momentum.

Queen Elizabeth, Harry and Meghan sit at a Buckingham Palace reception following the final Queen's Young Leaders Awards Ceremony on June 26, 2018. (John Stillwell/Pool via Reuters)

"It mattered as an organization in international affairs in large part because the issue of southern Africa and ... the proper decolonization of southern Africa was still a major concern, and the Commonwealth had a part to play in that, and did," said Murphy. 

"Since then, the Commonwealth has been really looking for a role and not really finding one, and so the support of the Royal Family has been more important than ever to it."

But which members of the family will do that now?

Certainly Harry and Meghan won't be doing the official kinds of duties that took them on tours to Australia, New Zealand and southern Africa.

"We're not going to see those high-profile official tours that we would expect if they were continuing to undertake a full schedule of royal duties," said Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris.

And that, Harris suggested, could have a ripple effect.

Harry and Meghan dance during a visit to the Justice Desk, a non-governmental organization in the township of Nyanga in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2019. (AFP/Getty Images)

"I think it's going to have a significance that the Commonwealth is going to see fewer tours from senior members of the Royal Family."

More 'lower-profile visits'

In Canada, for example, there's been a trend toward shorter, more targeted visits. Some are working visits that fly well under the national radar.

"We no longer see multiple high-profile official royal visits happening in the same year," said Harris. "Instead, there tends to be a high-profile official visit every few years, and then we get these more lower-profile visits, working visits."

And if there are fewer visits, that could have its own effect, raising more fundamental questions, said Craig Prescott, a senior lecturer in the department of law at Winchester University in southern England.

"If you're in Australia or Canada and you're not getting the royal visits you were getting ... five, 10 years ago, is there any point in having the Queen of Canada or the Queen of Australia as your head of state if you don't see them or their representative very often?"

Harry and Meghan talk to members of OneWave, an awareness group for mental health and well-being, in Sydney, Australia, in 2018.

Prescott said he thinks "there's got to be a re-calibration" in how members of the Royal Family fulfil their roles collectively "as  head of nation, head of state, head of Commonwealth"

For Harry and Meghan, it's not a total severing of Commonwealth roles, even as they step back from official duties.

Harry is no longer the Commonwealth Youth Ambassador, and they will not represent the Commonwealth. But Meghan is continuing as patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. 

"The ACU is something that's clearly very close to her heart. She's been very active," said Murphy. "They did an event for the ACU in South Africa when they were there last year and ... I know she's told the organization that she wants to continue to be their patron, so that's all very clear."

What's less evident, he said, concerns the Queen's Commonwealth Trust, which was formed in 2016 as a successor to earlier trusts, with Harry as its president and Meghan as vice-president.

"Clearly the expectation was that Harry and Meghan would be very public faces of this trust and would help raise money," said Murphy. "Whether they have the time or inclination to do that now that they've stepped back from public duties is far from clear."

Harry and Meghan attend a formal powhiri welcome in Rotorua, New Zealand, in 2018. (Fiona Goodall/Getty Image)

Prescott said it seemed as if Harry and Meghan had a real, emotional commitment to the Commonwealth. Contemplating replacements for their involvement might point to Harry's cousins, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

"Or do you lose that function? So there's got to be some really big decisions made I think in the months ahead."


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

With files from CBC News