Will King Charles' rise accelerate the decline of the British empire?

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Will Queen Elizabeth’s death and King Charles’ rise accelerate the decline of the British empire?

All it took was a few days. Even before Queen Elizabeth II’s remains were brought to London, ahead of her funeral on Sept. 19, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, one of 14 other countries where the British sovereign remains head of state, said he planned to hold a referendum within three years on replacing the monarchy.

It was, to be sure, no surprise: Antigua’s leader, Gaston Browne, had already raised the idea with the queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, when he visited the Caribbean nation earlier this year. “We continue to have the queen as our head of state, even though I should say we aspire at some point to become a republic,” Browne told Edward and his wife, Sophie, in April, months after nearby Barbados officially bade farewell to the British crown. “But that is not currently on the cards, so she will remain as head of state for some time to follow.”

Although republican sentiment had been building up in the country, no one anticipated that Browne would move so swiftly after the queen’s passing. Elizabeth, monarch for the better part of a century, was a fixture — and even as the British Empire shrank, and even amid a push by historians and local researchers to critically examine previously ignored colonial atrocities in faraway realms, she still commanded respect both at home and abroad, if only for reasons of longevity and familiarity.

But that respect hasn’t automatically transferred to Queen Elizabeth’s septuagenarian son, the newly installed King Charles III. Or perhaps some of the remaining “Commonwealth realms,“ as they are known, simply see the royal transition as a logical moment for their own transition. This group of 14 is part of the wider Commonwealth, a political association comprising 56 countries, the vast majority of which have historical links to the old British empire.

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And as Charles takes over, other Commonwealth realms have joined Antigua in raising questions about whether it still makes sense to have a foreign king as their titular leader. It is a continuation, in many ways, of a process that began decades ago. When Elizabeth II took the reins, in 1952, Britain still possessed 70 overseas territories. The shrinkage had already begun before her time: For example, India, once known as the “Jewel in the British Crown,” gained independence five years before Elizabeth became queen. As monarch, her role was confined mostly to ceremony and to symbolic constitutional duties such as appointing new governments; only two days before her death, Elizabeth fulfilled that role for the last time when she formally appointed Liz Truss as Britain’s new prime minister. In foreign realms, her duties were carried out by a royal representative.

But the practice seems to many to be increasingly archaic. Earlier this week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that while jettisoning the king wasn’t on her government’s immediate agenda, she had no doubt that her country would in time become a republic. “It’s just the pace and how widely that debate is occurring,” she told the Associated Press. “I’ve made my view plain many times. I do believe that is where New Zealand will head, in time. I believe it is likely to occur in my lifetime.”

In Jamaica, following the queen’s death, the Gleaner newspaper published an editorial saying her departure and Charles’ ascension “highlights not only the absurdity of the island’s head of state being the sovereign of another country, but that Jamaicans have no say in who gets the job.” Recent polling shows that around 6 in 10 Jamaicans favor cutting ties with the monarchy. And earlier this year, the government said the country, which plans to petition the British crown for reparations for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, would move toward republicanism in time for the next general election, due in 2025.

The case for the royals wasn’t helped by a visit to the Caribbean in March by Prince William and his wife, Kate, now the prince and princess of Wales. The enduring image from the trip showed the pair shaking hands with children through a wire-mesh fence. It was only one of several awkward — and tone-deaf — moments from a trip that fed what was already a well-established republican tide sweeping across former colonial outposts in the region. William and Kate are popular at home, seen by many as expressions of modern Britain, but the Caribbean tour left them looking out of touch, stiff personifications of an imperial world that has been consigned to history. As they left, a government minister in Belize, another place where Charles is now king, was quoted as telling parliament: “Perhaps it is time for Belize to take the next step in truly owning our independence.”

Not everyone is rushing out of the royal gate — the two largest Commonwealth realms in particular may stay the course for a while. In Australia, where the republican argument was last defeated in a 1999 referendum, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said that “now is not the time” to talk about ditching the crown; a world away, in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signaled his view when he said that his nation was looking “to the future with the proclamation of the ascension of His Majesty King Charles III as sovereign of Canada.”

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What’s clear, given the news over the past few days, is that not everyone feels that way.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.

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