Queen Elizabeth II loves the Commonwealth—she’s passionately (yet non-politically) defended it, fought for its survival and, after 66 years diligently reading state reports, is amazingly well-versed on its nations, and now she appears to be leading a determined push to transfer her affection to the rest of the royal family.
That’s why, on March 12, Commonwealth Day, pretty much every royal who is in London will be at Westminster Abbey for an annual service of thanksgiving. The music-and-youth-filled event is a calendar fixture for the Queen, but only in recent years have other family members showed up, as a chart from Gert’s Royals demonstrates.
This year, the Windsors include:
- The Queen
- Prince Charles
- Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall
- Prince William
- Kate, Duchess of Cambridge
- Prince Harry
- Meghan Markle
- Prince Andrew
- Sophie, Countess of Wessex
- Princess Anne
- Duchess of Gloucester
- Princess Alexandra
The inclusion of the Fab Four (William, Kate, Harry, Meghan) elevate this usually sedate event into a major occasion. Not only is Kate around eight months pregnant with her third child, but it’s rare for the royal family, especially the Queen, to include a fiancée at such a high profile event (to say nothing of the fashion stakes.)
THE ROYAL FAMILY’S FOCUS ON THE COMMONWEALTH
In addition, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be in Britain from April 16-20. And the Queen is not only hosting many of the events in royal residences in London and Windsor but the royal family is involved in a wide variety of Commonwealth-related activities. On Feb. 19, the two most fashionable full-time royals, Kate and Sophie, guaranteed a huge amount of media attention by co-hosting a reception for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at Buckingham Palace.
A close reading of the Court Circular, which tracks official royal documents, reveals a wide range of Commonwealth-related engagements: Prince Edward at the Royal Commonwealth Society and hosting meetings and events as vice patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation; the Queen, aided by other senior royals, hosting a reception at Buckingham Palace “for the Commonwealth Diaspora from across the United Kingdom;” Prince Andrew talking with the head of the Commonwealth Summit unit; the Duke of Gloucester in Malawi to see its addition to the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy initiative protecting forests throughout the organization.
In addition to CHOGM, during which Prince Harry is expected to take on a high profile Commonwealth role dealing with two areas that are already dear to him: youth and the environment. And Prince Charles, Camilla and Edward are going to the Commonwealth Games, being held in Australia’s Gold Coast in early April. Charles, who will open it as the Queen’s representative, will then go on a short tour with Camilla. Edward, as vice patron of the games federation, will stay at the sporting event. There will be a Commonwealth Youth Forum (April 16-18) as well as Big Lunches held throughout the global organization.
It isn’t a sudden ramp-up, and not all events are specifically labelled “Commonwealth.” In November, Sophie visited Bangladesh to see how the programs aided and started by Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust (she’s vice-patron) is helping eliminate avoidable blindness.
Sophie Countess of Wessex undergoes a diabetic retinopathy scan at Sher-Bangla Hospital #Barisal #Bangladesh The Countess was visiting on behalf of @qejubileetrust #Royals She was presented with a print of her scan pic.twitter.com/C6Hkgx52RV
— Rookie (@royalfocus1) November 20, 2017
It wasn’t by chance that the first royal tour by William and Kate after their marriage was to Canada, a senior Commonwealth nation and a realm country (the Queen is its head of state), followed by a long swing the next year through Commonwealth nations in Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia and Tuvalu. And it’s expected that Harry and Meghan will follow in their Commonwealth footprints, adding a tour of Australia onto their duties during the Invictus Games this autumn.
THE ROYAL FAMILY’S LONG-TERM GOAL
The unsaid, yet overarching aim is to solidify the royal family as the Commonwealth’s most prominent proponents. For when the Queen dies, the next leader of the 2.4-billion-person organization is not necessarily her heir, Charles. That decision will be made after her death, though speculation ramps up every time senior leaders meet. In February, a media whirlwind of speculation engulfed a meeting discussing “governance of the Commonwealth Secretariat,” so much so that the group was forced to publicly state, “The issue of succession of the Head of the Commonwealth is not part of the group’s mandate.”
The Queen has certainly done everything she can to position Charles as the heavy favourite to win the position. In 2016, during a lecture on the future of the Commonwealth, Julia Gillard revealed that when she was Australia’s prime minister, she got an interesting communication three years before:
In early 2013, I was advised that Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary, wanted half an hour of my time in my capacity as chair of the Commonwealth, an office the host holds until the next meeting. He would fly to Australia to anywhere I was in order to get it. The upshot of our meeting, which took place in Adelaide–the centre of everything you’ll remember–on Feb. 21, 2013, was a clearly worded statement for the public record about how succession works for the role of the head of Commonwealth.
I would not want you to think this was some simple act of colonial subservience. I did see wisdom in it. However, the purpose of the statement would have been a mystery to many until Prince Charles attended the next CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) in Sri Lanka in the Queen’s place.
A few months later, in the New Year’s Honours List of 2014, Geidt was awarded his second knighthood (knight commander of the Order of the Bath) for, among other things, “the preparation for the transition to a change of Reign and relations with the Commonwealth.”
Regardless of who gets the top Commonwealth job, part of the reason for the push to spread Commonwealth-related duties more widely in the royal family is that the Queen is slowly lessening her workload, and crucially, she no longer undertakes overseas tours. Her areas of interest are being redistributed. As Prince Edward explained to the Sunday Mail in 2017, “It is always a team effort and that’s what we do, and the show goes on. If an actor retires from a show, guess what? The show goes on and everybody shuffles around and we all fill in the spaces and keep it all going.”
WHY THE QUEEN CARES
Ahead of Commonwealth Day, the Queen released her annual message to the 53 nation organization:
We all have reason to give thanks for the numerous ways in which our lives are enriched when we learn from others. Through exchanging ideas, and seeing life from other perspectives, we grow in understanding and work more collaboratively towards a common future. There is a very special value in the insights we gain through the Commonwealth connection; shared inheritances help us overcome difference so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division.
We shall see this in action at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which takes place in the United Kingdom next month, bringing together young people, business and civil society from across the Commonwealth. These gatherings are themselves fine examples of how consensus and commitment can help to create a future that is fairer, more secure, more prosperous and sustainable. Having enjoyed the warm hospitality of so many Commonwealth countries over the years, I look forward to the pleasure of welcoming the leaders of our family of 53 nations to my homes in London and Windsor.
Sport also contributes to building peace and development. The excitement and positive potential of friendly rivalry will be on display next month as we enjoy the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. Contributing to the success of the Games, alongside athletes and officials, will be thousands of volunteers. Voluntary effort, by people working as individuals, in groups or through larger associations, is so often what shapes the Commonwealth and all our communities.
By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.
Read the bolded sections in her message, and you’ll see the Queen’s quiet, restrained, yet committed aim: to turn what was once an empire with colonial holdings to be plundered into a confederation that believes that “consensus and commitment” is the way to a better future. Now, 66 years after she came to the throne, it’s come time for the rest of the royal family to take her message to the next generation.