A question of succession

Michael Cole & Bill Cash MP

As part of the ongoing debate about the future of the Commonwealth – as reflected in last year’s deliberations of its Eminent Persons Group – the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in April this year held a groundbreaking discussion on the future of the relationship between the Commonwealth and the British Crown.

Debating whether the Crown is ‘An Emblem of Dominion or a Symbol of Free and Voluntary Association’, the speakers looked at possible alternatives to the continuation of the traditional link between the Commonwealth and the Crown. The idea of an election for a new Head was presented by former BBC journalist Michael Cole, who felt that an elected head would be sure to make the Commonwealth more relevant to the citizens of its member states.

Opposing this idea were both Bill Cash, a British Conservative MP, and Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Research Professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King’s College, London. The latter argued that the very act of electing a new Head could polarise the diverse membership of the Commonwealth and perhaps even damage the organisation’s traditions and nature.

The debate was chaired by Vijay Krishnarayan, Director of the Commonwealth Foundation. Global here presents the arguments put forward by Michael Cole and Bill Cash.

A new beginning: the Head of the Commonwealth should in future be elected

For obvious reasons, the British Empire was always controversial, and even the recent books on the subject can stir the most heated debates about its faults and achievements.

The Commonwealth, on the other hand, has almost always been regarded as a ‘good thing’: a voluntary association of independent states promoting good gov­ernment, democracy and human rights. The Commonwealth has moral authority derived from these shared values and be­liefs.

The question is: Could it be more of a ‘good thing’? And if so, how?  The Commonwealth’s real problem is not one of hostility or antagonism but one of indifference. Former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind admitted this when he said its relevance is being questioned. He also noted that questions arise over its commitment to enforcing the values for which it stands.

So what could be done to make the Commonwealth more relevant? Person­ally, I think it could increase its prestige and its relevance by widening its scope and membership. There are various appli­cants who wish to join and I believe the Commonwealth has nothing to fear and everything to gain by being more open to new members.

The Commonwealth is not, nor has it ever been, a political bloc. In future, it should be an adherence to the Commonwealth’s be­liefs, not a country’s historic ties to Britain, that should determine its admission or not.

This brings us to the role of the monarch as Head of the Commonwealth. The Queen has been and continues to be an outstanding head. I think it is not too much to describe her regard for the Commonwealth as a pas­sion. She cares deeply about the Common­wealth and fully believes in it.

I know that some cynical people believe that the Commonwealth exists to give the royal family somewhere nice and warm to go to in the winter, but I have never seen it that way. The Queen sees the Common­wealth as a force for good in a threatening world and that is why she goes further than the extra mile to sustain and encourage its work.

But after Queen Elizabeth II, what next? The successor to the Crown does not auto­matically become Head of the Common­wealth, and there are respectable reasons why her successor should not succeed to the Commonwealth role.

The roles of Constitutional Monarch and Head of the Commonwealth are far from compatible, if both roles are to be fulfilled as they should be. As sovereign of the Unit­ed Kingdom, the Queen has to maintain po­litical neutrality, and the same applies in the 15 other Commonwealth countries where she is Head of State.

It is clear that the Head of the Common­wealth must have a view, particularly if it is against something as central to the Com­monwealth’s beliefs as racial equality, and yet the Queen can only show her political views at the risk of creating a crisis.

In the 1980s, two clever reporters from The Sunday Times got the Queen’s Press Secretary to agree that her views on South Africa might be at odds with those of the then British Prime Minis­ter Margaret Thatcher, and the resulting headlines, in July 1986, were sensa­tional: “Queen on collision course with Maggie on race”. The Press Secretary, Michael Shea, left Buckingham Palace six months later. He had to go because he had involved his principal in poli­tics.

I wondered if the incident had embar­rassed the Queen. It was explained to me by a patient courtier that it was “constitu­tionally impossible” for the Queen to be embarrassed. Maybe, but on that occasion it was pretty close.

If the Commonwealth had an elected Head, such a problem would not arise. It might also mean that the Commonwealth could carry more political clout. It would not be left to the Secretary-General alone to make the running on the big issues of the day. It would indeed make the Com­monwealth more relevant.

At present, the Secretary-General is se­lected by the Heads of Government. How the Head of the Commonwealth might be elected would be up to the organisation itself, but I’m sure some means could be devised. The model of the conclave of car­dinals comes to mind; that seems to work quite well. Whatever the method, it is cer­tain that an election would create both in­terest and added relevance.

Let’s have continuity: the Queen’s successor must also head the Commonwealth

Over the Diamond Jubilee weekend, we saw the best of the United Kingdom’s great monarch as we came together as a country to celebrate the Queen’s 60 years of service. Her Majesty the Queen brings a sense of national unity and stability. She is someone who the whole country can iden­tify with.

It was not only in the UK that there had been cause for celebration. The Queen is Head of State of 15 Commonwealth realms in addition to the UK. She is also Head of the Commonwealth itself, a voluntary as­sociation of 54 independent countries.

Politically, it doesn’t matter whether people are Labour or Conservative or Lib­eral Democrat, or can’t bear any politi­cians. We have as Head of State someone whom the whole country can look up to, a great symbol of national unity that relates all parts: the British people to their institu­tions, their history, and their relations with other countries and the Commonwealth. Collectively, that unity provides an anchor to the British people. It is a great source of strength and stability, both now and into the future.

The Queen is at the centre of grav­ity of our nation and the Commonwealth. Politics in general in the UK takes place within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. The Commonwealth is an inter­national organisation, spanning every geo­graphical region, religion and culture and, after 60 years, it remains a major force for change in the world today.

The origins of the Commonwealth come from Britain’s former empire. Many mem­bers of the Commonwealth were territories that had historically come under British rule. The administration of such colonies evolved in different ways, to reflect the dif­ferent circumstances of each territory. We live in a new age but the Commonwealth’s traditions are more important now than ever.

A notable historical fact is the Common­wealth’s voluntary nature. After achiev­ing independence, India was the first of a number of countries which decided that, although they wished to become repub­lics, they still wanted to remain within the Commonwealth. Membership of the Com­monwealth is still entirely voluntary and a member can withdraw at any time, as did the Republic of Ireland in 1949 and Zim­babwe in 2003.

What is more, a recent poll published by The Guardian newspaper demonstrated that support for the monarchy was at its highest level since the survey was first ini­tiated in 1997 – almost 70 percent of Brit­ons said the country would be worse off without the monarchy, compared to 22 per­cent who felt it would be better off. Only 10 percent backed an elected head of state.

Another poll in the UK showed that some 90 percent of people said they were satisfied with the Queen’s work, against 7 percent who said they were dissatisfied. It is the highest level of satisfaction recorded since Ipsos MORI first asked the question in 1992. This shows why so many people attended the immensely successful Jubilee celebrations across the country.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Common­wealth, Australian support for the monar­chy has hit a 25-year high. According to the Roy Morgan poll conducted during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, 58 percent of Australians support the mon­archy, while support for a republic stood only at 35 percent.

The idea of an elected politician as Head of the Commonwealth is profoundly mis­guided and would lead to division. The Queen is the embodiment of the monarchy, its values and its traditions, and is above politics.

The natural successor as the next Head of the Commonwealth is the natural suc­cessor to the Queen.

About the author:

Michael Cole, public relations consultant and former BBC Court Correspondent

Bill Cash, MP for Stone (Staffordshire), House of Commons


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International