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An Over-simplified Guide to the Commonwealth...and Why it Matters to the Royal Tour

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The British Commonwealth has a long and rather complicated history and explanations can get a little convoluted. In an effort to make this as painless as possible, I will try and keep this as general as I can. That being said, the vast inter-web is at your disposal should the spirit move you to more rigorous study on the topic. I present, in entirely untechnical terms, an oversimplified explanation of the Commonwealth. 

The current Commonwealth of Nations is primarily made up of countries that formally constituted the British Empire, which spanned more of the globe than any other empire in history. Yes, they had those Romans beat. The collapse of the Empire, as is often the case in these political situations, was over time and had many contributing factors. For our purposes we will simply say, it fell apart. But, a "Commonwealth of Nations," came out of it. Again, this was complicated and there have been stages and changes since it was originally conceived. What is the situation today?

53 Commonwealth Nations

  • The Head of the Commonwealth is Elizabeth II. "There is no maximum fixed term for the Head of the Commonwealth. The choice of successive Heads will be made collectively by Commonwealth leaders."  Translation: Charles isn't guaranteed this position. He has to be elected! He must be chosen! 
  • 16 of the 53 Commonwealth Nations are colloquially known as Commonwealth Realms, that is they recognize Elizabeth II as their constitutional monarch.  This is a step-up from the last. She is the "Queen" of the country.  Canada, Australia, and New Zealand remain in this category. When in Canada, the royals are the "Canadian Royal Family," they have a royal standard in New Zealand, Elizabeth II can be styled: "Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth."

For our argument, there are two things to keep in mind as separate and important: Head of the Commonwealth and constitutional monarch. Ideally, the British Royal Family would love to stay both. It's a changed world though, and each of these nations is an independent and equal member of the Commonwealth. These countries span the globe, cross cultures and sometimes languages. There are a lot of different people and opinions, so staying Head of the Commonwealth and remaining constitutional monarch is going to be a struggle as time moves forward.

The Queen is greatly respected. She remains the steady rock of a past generation, but the world has changed massively since she ascended to the throne in the 50's. The likelihood that she would be replaced as Head or ousted as monarch is essentially nil. But, when she dies that is when the shake up may come. Attitudes have changed toward all sorts of things and when she dies not everyone is going to want to pass the status quo to Charles--either has Head of the Commonwealth, or an even tougher sell, as constitutional monarch in the 16 countries that still acknowledge the BRF.

So, when I say there are strong republican movements, these are the people who get up and say, why in 2014 are we still acknowledging some person half a world away as our constitutional monarch? Why do we have a royal family at all? This is a relic of the past! Modernization! (You see where the battle cry goes....)

Charles has (essentially) been running for election to Head of the Commonwealth for a while now. He meets with the heads of these governments, attends the Commonwealth meetings, yadayadayada. He has mixed reviews with the public. A lot of people see him as stuffy and a hold-over from another time and mental attitude. And, with some, he also still carries battle scars from his marriage to Diana. Let's just say, he doesn't inspire mass hysteria of excitement. 

But, someone in the royal family does... Hello, William and Kate, you global superstars! Oh yes, and now Mr. Grumpy-pants. They have a job. They have a tasked mission: save the monarchy.

When the entire world was caught up in their fairytale romance and media frenzy was at its zenith over the royal wedding, what did William and Kate do? They departed almost immediately to Canada for a coast-to-coast tour. They took their gorgeous faces, their loved-up, honeymooning-selves, and they charmed their way through Canada. (And then they popped down to LA, because the rebellious colonies needed the crumbs from the table. :))

What did they do after they had their adorable little George? They departed for Australia and New Zealand and they are working their magic again, with the help of their tiny, and primarily unwitting,  accomplice. As Vogue titles him, "George, the republican nemesis in nappies."

Was there a method to their madness? Let me think... yes! Canada, at 3.855 million square miles, is the largest nation in the Commonwealth! Australia--a continent in its own right--trails only slightly at 2.97 million square miles! Canada's economy is the 11th largest in the world by GDP followed immediately by Australia at 12! These are pretty impressive countries. It's a nice little jewel in your crown to have them acknowledging you as constitutional monarch. 

In conclusion, is this political? Absolutely! That isn't to say they are visiting under false pretenses or trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. Nor am I detracting from the historical significance, but this is two-fold. They are visiting their primary countries, the countries most likely to say, "Thanks, your majesty, but we are all grown-up and modern now" and saying, "Hey. We're cool. We're fun. We get you. Stick around and we'll be cool together." 

This could be the monarchy's lifeline. Charles may not be able to cut it in the hip culture of today, but these two have a whole new approach to the monarchy and what it means to be royal. They present to  the critical generation a cogent understanding of the modern monarchy. The Cambridges present the future and it looks bright... 


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Being American, I never paid much attention to this subject as it did not interest me. Now I understand the whole thing better! Can the Queen jump over Charles and abdicate (or should I say abdiKATE) to William? I'm assuming so. I wonder how Charles would feel about that and how would William feel about that? I could totally see that happening though. Thanks again. Joan M. from Ohio

    1. Hi Joan! I am glad it was helpful! There has been lot of confusion and I hope I didn't over simplify it, it is a multi-faceted issue and I didn't mean to trivialize, just give a sense of the situation.
      There is no chance that Charles will be skipped. None. Historically, that doesn't happen in the UK, and frankly I think it would hurt the monarchy if they did. I think the key is that people can see William and Kate...and George, and the sense that the future is solid is what will propel the institution as a whole from the place Elizabeth II began into the "New World." To give Charles credit, he has made a lot of changes that have been good in terms of becoming a man of the people, but... Having William and Kate as the headline will hopefully be enough to keep these countries and peoples on board. Frankly, I think Charles will be elected to head the Commonwealth when the time comes. I don't know what will happen with the "realms" in the Commonwealth. We shall see. :) Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. LETTISHA BALLIRAMApril 16, 2014 at 8:23 PM

    Hi Jane, The lady in peach on the right of the Queen in the second pic is the Prime Minister of my country-Trinidad and Tobago!! I love your blog, I've been a long time fan. Keep up the great job

  3. What a great post!! Thank you for bringing me up to date. I've had school lessons about the Commonwealth but to be honest forgot the most because as a german it doesn't concern me directly. And so, of course, I didn't think of the meaning to the BRF. I knew how important colours, designers, behaviour, etc are when visiting another country (especially of the Commonwealth) but with this background it is quite clear to me how important it REALLY is.
    Jane, you're awesome!! That's why I love your blog! It's not just describing and valuing clothes but looking behind the subjects. It's great!

  4. Thanks Jane for this post. I've known a bit about the Commonwealth but your explanation really helped further my understanding about it. It will be interesting to see what happens when Charles ascends the throne, will the Commonwealth continue or fade away? I don't mean any offense to Charles but it seems that people on a whole aren't that excited about his ascending the throne and seem to be waiting for William and Kate to reign.

  5. This was very informative and interesting. Can't we just skip over Charles and let William be King?

  6. Great article as always, Jane. Being a fan of Kate and/or the royal family doesn't mean one can not see them as they are, and not only as "idols", and see the real politics behind the smiles.
    When Kate married William, once I had some kind of dazzle, saying "OMG, she entered a Mafia!". Don't misunderstand me: I don't mean they deal drugs and do white slave trade. But you know, Charles himself calls the family "the Firm", and once you enter the family, either by birth or marriage, you have to do the job, which is "maintain the Firm", and you have to remain silent. That impression was reinforced when I knew that the Queen would like the status of Head of the Commonwealth to become hereditary. I mean, who thinks things should be hereditary ?! Monarchies are historically hereditary, well that's the way it is. But the Commonwealth is not an historic hereditary monarchy (even if Elizabeth II became Head of the Commonwealth after her father dyed), and I see no reason to create a heredity nowadays.
    That being said, it leads to the question of monarchy or republic. I'm French (so forgive my English mistakes, by the way :) ), so you could think I'm a republican. Well, it's not so clear. Of course I think a Head of whatever should be elected. But in the facts, people vote for anyone without considering his capabilities (look at our president). In the facts, there are as many sycophants and plots and nepotism in a republic than in a monarchy. In the facts, an elected president costs as much to the tax-payers as the whole British Royal Family. In France the president costs 3 times more, but he is Head of the Government as well as Head of State ; in Germany they have a Head of State that costs more or less the same amount as the BRF But he is alone, while they are... plenty :) (and who knows him outside of Germany ?)
    So apart from the hereditary thing and the cost of the monarchy, let's look at the capabilities. Great Britain's Head of State has multiple heads. Philip, Charles, Camilla, Anne, Andrew, Edward, Sophie, William, Catherine, Harry, without saying of the Duke of Kent and some others, can all represent the Queen. And what is their role ? Being a symbol. The Queen has some power (most of it being untold, I guess), but the Monarchy is mainly a symbol. Most people need a chief, a leader, a symbol, an idol (some people need an idol to destroy it, as we can see many naughty comments here and there about the "lazzy members of the useless Royal Family scrounging on tax-payers"). They are a link between British people, and a link between the past and the future. So, as the symbol of Great Britain, their inside role is to say to British people "you are a part of Great Britain, and Great Britain cares of you". Their outside role is to say to the world "Great Britain is great, come and visit us, come and trade with us". So, do they do that well ? I think so. I think William, Kate and Harry do that very well, William and Kate for the inside job, and Harry for the outside one.
    So in spite of the heredity that should be unacceptable in any democracy, I think the current Royal Family is the best Head of State for Great Britain in the present time. As we say in France: "one doesn't change a team that wins".

    (to be continued... my comment is too long!)

  7. (continuation...)

    But now what is their role in the Commonwealth ? To the Commonwealth itself, the Head of the Commonwealth is purely symbolic. So will Charles be the next Head of the Commonwealth ? We shall see... Maybe they will decide the Head of the Commonwealth is now elected for 5 years or something, but actually that's not the big problem. The big problem is not the Commonwealth, it's the realms. Will the future King remain the king of the 16 Commonwealth realms ? I doubt it. Not all the realms will become a republic when Elizabeth passes away. I think that for some very little states, being a realm of the King of United Kingdom is a good support. But what about Canada and Australia particularly, or even New Zealand ? Why would they stay in Charles' kingdom ? There is certainly absolutely no reason... but one : the hope of being part of William's Kingdom!
    Although William and Kate are genuinely highlighting the best of NZ and Australia (and that's why NZ and Oz pay for the tour: the economic effect on tourism will be huge), in the same time they are also the best PR for the Firm! So I totally agree: the tour is definitely political.
    I heard somewhere there's been a poll a few weeks ago in Oz, where monarchists where 51% and republicans 42%, the lower rate of republicans for decades. This is clearly the Wills and Kate effect. But 51% monarchists is not that much, and the Firm needs to maintain the flame, so they sent their best storm troopers... and now with a tank :)
    I would be interested to know if there is the same poll after the tour, and what will the rates be...

    1. Vive le Reine.- Vive St Louis

      Down with the 5th republic and idiot president.

  8. It's best to stay away from the politics Jane, otherwise you'll attract the nutcases, embittered, disposed and the unhappy.

  9. This was so great! It was indeed an excellent guide to the Commonwealth. Question: what do you see happening with the 'outer' royals, Charles' siblings and William's cousins and so forth? From what I've read I've come to understand that Charles wants to streamline the monarchy, do you see this happening? I wonder what Harry's position will be, especially with this talk about Cressida being 'the one' but not suitable for royal life. Could he walk away, in a sense, and live as a private citizen like Zara, or is he expected to become a full-time royal?

    1. I think harry is expected to be a full time royal with his own agenda. The commonwealth is large and there is work for all of them. Supposing cressida is "the one", she will have to join the team

      Gabriella, italy

  10. Thank you for the post, it was not trivial nor oversimplified but gave the correct view. William is a political man, we don't have to forget that and the visits are needed to cement telationships.

    Gabriella, italy

  11. An article you may be interested to read :
    (and a beautiful picture of George and William :D )


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