One of the Elizabeth II’s proudest achievements has been her central role in creating the Commonwealth. But as her reign reaches its final stages, some are asking whether this disparate group of nations really has a future.
In 1952, the year she ascended the throne, Elizabeth became head of what is one of the world’s biggest international organisations, made up of 54 countries, mostly former colonies of the United Kingdom.
Nowadays it accounts for around 2.6 billion people, or about one third of the world’s population.
In March, in her annual message to the Commonwealth, Elizabeth said: “Today, it is rewarding to observe a modern, vibrant and connected Commonwealth that combines a wealth of history and tradition with the great social, cultural and technological advances of our time. “That the Commonwealth stands ever taller is a credit to all who have been involved.”
Officially, the Commonwealth is “a voluntary association of 54 independent and equal countries”.
But with its roots in empire, the stains of colonialism have never been entirely washed away. For some this undermines its values in a modern world.
According to Philip Murphy, professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London: ” I think perhaps the Commonwealth has historically run its course… what you’re really seeing now is the ghost of an organisation.”
He told Reuters that the Commonwealth might have a role in dealing with the legacy of the British empire and colonialism, and issues such as reparation and restitution.
Others are more sanguine. The Commonwealth’s supporters say it provides a global network to foster cooperation and trade links. In addition, it promotes democracy and development, and addresses issues such as climate change.
When Barbados cut its ties with the British monarchy last year and became a republic, it was keen to remain part of the Commonwealth.
“The Commonwealth is beneficial to many Caribbean nations as well as many African nations and it links us into countries like Australia and New Zealand and Canada,” said Barbados-based David Denny, general-secretary for the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, a non-governmental organisation.
There are questions, though, over who will lead it after the current monarch. Some, including Mr Denny, have argued that its head should not be a British royal, despite Commonwealth leaders agreeing in 2018 that Elizabeth’s son and heir Prince Charles should succeed her.
But even as the spirit of republicanism grows stronger everywhere from the Caribbean to Australasia, there are few signs of members heading for the exit.
Many countries from the developing world have joined the Commonwealth long after Empire ended, most recently Rwanda, in 2009.
And this central-African country, along with fellow Commonwealth members Cameroon and Mozambique, were never part of the British Empire.
These states believed prestige and influence came with Commonwealth membership.
In the case of Rwanda, joining the Commonwealth was also intended as a diplomatic slap in the face to the French government from a Francophone country.
Rwanda has even introduced cricket in its schools and encouraged the use of English.
Its wily autocrat leader Paul Kagame will host the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2022 this month (from 20 to 25 June). This is a prime example of how developing nations can use Commonwealth membership to their advantage.
Kagame hopes hosting this big international event will allow him to showcase Rwanda’s economic and social development and attract more investment.
He’s probably calculated this benefit will outweigh the damage from the inevitable and unflattering spotlight on his regime’s human rights record.
Kagame’s act of saving his country after the genocide a quarter of a century ago is in the historical record. But his political oppression at home and penchant for dispatching death squads to silence opponents abroad are also in the open.
Don’t expect the British government to flag up these abuses, as Home Secretary Priti Patel prepares to send asylum seekers (but hopefully not Rwanda asylum seekers) there.
But if a dubious human rights record was a bar to membership, the Commonwealth’s numbers would be seriously depleted.
Nowadays it covers a spectrum of Western and non-aligned governments, developed and developing economies, democracies, and authoritarian regimes.
They tend to show little political alignment, and often diverge on diplomatic issues. Members India and Pakistan have fought three wars against each other and remain bitter enemies.
But Commonwealth membership doesn’t require countries to be close friends or share political ideology. And just as well. In the 21st century, countries have multiple identities and complex relationships with other nations.
Cameroon, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, for example, enjoy both Commonwealth and Francophone memberships. Pan-Africanism and membership of the African Union is at least as important to many Commonwealth countries.
As British – and Royal – influence diminishes, the Commonwealth is almost certain to prevail. In future decades it’s quite likely that Gambia and Zimbabwe, under new leadership, will return to the club.
The Commonwealth’s purpose and usefulness remain a matter of debate – and opinions vary widely from member to member. But the Queen will no doubt take pride from knowing that the club of nations she nurtured will continue long after she has gone.