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What is Britain's treatment of Harry and Meghan saying to the Commonwealth?

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·10-min read

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to leave their senior royal roles could playing a part in impacting how people living in Commonwealth countries feel about the monarchy.

Earlier this year, the Barbadian prime minister announced the removal of the Queen as the head of state.

It came after more than 20 years of discussion on the island state as to whether they should break away.

On 15 September, the country finally made the move, with prime minister Mia Mottley stating the country would aim to make the move ahead of its 55th anniversary of independence, in November 2021.

“This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving.”

She said it would be a sign of “leaving our colonial past behind”.

Buckingham Palace has said the issue is one “for the government and people of Barbados”.

Barbados is one of 15 Commonwealth realms, countries which used to be part of the empire, and still retain the Queen as their head of state. Changing the head of state does not impact the nation's membership of the Commonwealth now, which is an organisation of 54 countries, which work together on global issues.

Harry and Meghan leaving their roles

Melissa Murray, an expert in constitutional law at New York University (NYU), said developments in Britain in recent years - including Harry and Meghan stepping down as senior royals - could have influenced how those living in Commonwealth countries such as Barbados view their own ties to Britain and its monarchy.

She pointed in particular to the departure of two popular members of the Royal Family - Harry and Meghan - who were seen as heralding a new diverse era.

Read more: Will Barbados removing the Queen as head of state trigger other countries to do the same?

Professor Murray said: “To the extent that those in the Caribbean are interested in and follow the British Royal Family, many cheered the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a biracial American, as a step toward a more inclusive, diverse and modern monarchy.

“The couple’s decision to step back from their roles as senior royals amidst sharp - and in many cases, unwarranted - criticism of Ms Markle has, in some quarters, fuelled the sense that the UK is not hospitable to people of colour.

“It has also removed two members of the family who were very popular in the broader Commonwealth, and whose work as senior royals included strengthening ties between the UK and the Commonwealth.”

Historian and royal biographer Robert Lacey made a similar observation about the impact of the Palace’s failure to “hold onto” Meghan.

Speaking to the Daily Mail he said: “For a monarchy that represents a mixed-race nation and a mixed-race commonwealth [having Meghan] was important. Is it any wonder Barbados and Jamaica are now saying, ‘We are signing off. We can do without the Queen, thank you very much’.”

Windrush and British politics

She also cited recent political moments, particularly the Windrush scandal, as further reason why people in Caribbean nations might perceive Britain as being unwelcoming to people of colour.

The Windrush scandal of 2018 saw hundreds of people, who had moved to the UK as part of a drive to fill a post-war job shortage, classed as illegal immigrants.

Those affected were left with the job of proving they had the right to stay in the country, even though many came to the UK as children on their parent’s passport, or had not been given the kinds of documents they needed by the Home Office.

Professor Murray said: “You also cannot discount the impact of Brexit, Windrush and other developments in the UK in sparking an interest in republicanism elsewhere in the Commonwealth, particularly in the Caribbean.

“On the heels of Brexit, trade amongst Commonwealth nations was heralded as a salve that would mitigate Brexit’s impact on the UK’s trade relationship with Europe. But the interest in strong trade ties between the UK and the Commonwealth coincided with the Windrush scandal and the sense that the UK was no longer hospitable to immigrants, including long-standing immigrants from the Caribbean.

“The notion that the Commonwealth could be a saviour for Britain’s trade prospects, but that its residents are unwelcome in the UK, is a jarring disjunction that does not sit well with citizens of Caribbean nations.”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 22: A group of protesters march across Westminster Bridge to mark the first official Windrush Day with a demonstration demanding justice for members of the Windrush Generation on 22 June, 2019 in London, England. The Windrush Day of Action, taking place simultaneously in seven cities across the UK, is part of an ongoing campaign against the impact of Government's 'hostile environment' immigration policies and deportations from the UK to the Caribbean. Demonstrators call for a formal UN investigation into the Windrush scandal, an end to deportations and guarantee of full rights and compensations towards those affected by the scandal.PHOTOGRAPH BY Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
A group of protesters march across Westminster Bridge to mark the first official Windrush Day with a demonstration demanding justice for members of the Windrush Generation in June 2019. (Barcroft Media)

Read more: 9 things the Queen has said about the Commonwealth she gave 'heart and soul' to

Black power and Black Lives Matter

The New York Times drew comparisons between 2020 and the last era in which multiple Caribbean nations removed the Queen as head of state. Through the 1970s, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica all made the same move - buoyed by the Black power movement.

Professor Richard Drayton, of King’s College London, who spent his childhood in Barbados, told the NYTimes: “As in the 1970s in the Caribbean, there’s a new anger among younger people, not just about the predicament of people who happen to be Black in the United States, but about the experience of people who are Black in their own societies.”

Professor Murray told Yahoo UK: “Obviously, correlation is not causation, but it is hard to read Ms Mottley’s statement without considering the influence of BLM [Black Lives Matter].

“As she said, the move toward a republic is animated by a desire for Barbados to shed the vestiges of colonialism and select a head of state who is Bajan.

“This interest in self-determination and self-government is not necessarily front and centre of BLM activity in the United States, but it has been central to discussions of BLM in those nations that have had a more pronounced history of British imperialism and colonialism.”

Britain's Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, arrive to attend the Mountbatten Festival of Music at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Britain March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/Pool
Professor Murray also noted the decision by Harry and Meghan, here in March 2020, to step back. (Reuters)

Read more: Is Prince Harry right to take a pop at the Queen's Commonwealth?

Prince Harry and Meghan remain president and vice president respectively of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT), despite stepping back from their senior royal roles.

They found themselves under fire earlier this year when Harry, 36, addressed the history of the commonwealth in relation to racial justice, and said: “When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past, and guess what, everybody benefits.”

A few weeks later, Harry sounded more positive however, praising his grandmother, the Queen, during a conversation with people involved with the QCT. He said: “I think everything my grandmother wanted to achieve when she took this huge responsibility on, she’s managed…

“No one could have predicted how the world was going to change in such a short space of time, especially with the digital space, but hearing you guys, and knowing the broad spectrum that QCT engulfs, you’re the definition of the 21st century Commonwealth, and what it means to be part of it.

“You are there, standing for equality, for mutual respect, and for fairness.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09:  Queen Elizabeth II attends the Commonwealth Day Service 2020 on March 09, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)
Queen Elizabeth II, here at the Commonwealth Day Service in March 2020 is a passionate supporter of the commonwealth. (WireImage)

Prime Minister Mottley told ABC Australia: “It's not a divisive decision, it's not a decision that is reflective of any break with the monarchy, or any disrespect, in fact it's quite the opposite.

“We have an excellent relationship with the United Kingdom, with the royal family, and we believe that the time has come to boost the confidence of our people.

“In a very real sense a lot of the changes have been made over the course of the last 54 years, so this is the most natural progression.”

Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, told the Daily Telegraph in July that the Commonwealth does not have any “dirty secret”.

He said: “The fact remains that what its members essentially have in common is the national experience of being part of the British Empire. One problem of the Commonwealth is that its constituency of active supporters has been ageing, and discussions have become terribly platitudinous.

“By contrast, issues around reparations, race, the Windrush Saga, are things that really grasp the imagination of young people. Although it might be uncomfortable for Britain, it might re-energise the Commonwealth and I think Harry and Meghan are right about that.”

The QCT, which has a disclaimer on its website that it does not represent the views of the monarchy, shared support for the Black Lives Matter movement in June.

The organisation tweeted: “Young people are vital voices in the fight against injustice and racism around the world. As a global community of young leaders we stand together in pursuit of fairness and a better way forward. Silence is not an option.

“We all have the power to effect positive change. It is time to speak up and speak out. Time to have uncomfortable conversations with ourselves and with others. Time to educate ourselves and unlearn. Time to come together and build a better future as one.”

What next for the Commonwealth?

Professor Murray also raised the question of what Barbados’ decision could mean for the future of the Commonwealth itself.

The Commonwealth is a network of 54 nations which work together on shared goals and ideals. While most members were formerly part of the British Empire, not all are, and most nations have their own head of state who is not the Queen.

But, the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth, as was her father before her, and her son, Prince Charles, will be the next head, following a vote of member countries, on the Queen’s suggestion.

Professor Murray said: “The Queen’s robust advocacy to ensure that Prince Charles succeeded her as Head of the Commonwealth was noted at CHOGM in 2018. While having the monarch, or in this case, future monarch, serve as head of the Commonwealth was a priority for the Queen, it was not required nor was it a foregone conclusion that the other Commonwealth nations would be on board.

“Going forward, if more and more commonwealth realms become republics—and do so in an effort to sever ties to colonialism and Empire—the idea of the monarch as the Head of the Commonwealth looks increasingly anachronistic.

“Indeed, if the number of commonwealth realms dwindle further, it will be hard to justify the entire structure of a Commonwealth organised around the British monarch.”

While other nations have not directly followed suit in the hours after the announcement, Australia and Jamaica are just two of the remaining realms to watch, having previously voiced support for becoming republics.

Both nations have recent polling citing support at republicanism at more than 50%.