For some the Commonwealth of Nations is a fig-leaf of imperialism, to others a teary-eyed reminder of lasting bonds of friendship, while to many citizens in the states that enjoy its membership it is a minor and inoffensive irrelevance. All of these things can be simultaneously, and varyingly, true, and two Canadian authors have waded into the discussion with an interesting volume surveying the ‘hard core’ of the Commonwealth: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom— inevitably known as CANZUK.
These nations enjoy links above and beyond ordinary Commonwealth status by sharing the same monarch, who wears different metaphorical crowns for each and is also, at the same time, the visible Head of the Commonwealth. These four states are modern, open, stable, and free parliamentary democracies whose racial makeup is now far more diverse than at the time they were granted status as British dominions.
Michael Smith and Stephen Klimczuk are quite frank in conceding that “British heritage doesn’t mean much anymore,” even to those whose families trace their origins back to Great Britain. All the same, they argue, the institutions and forms that were created under the influence of the British experience of government and statehood have endured in ways that continue to shape the way in which modern Australians, New Zealanders, Britons, and Canadians think, act, play, and govern themselves.
Even though the crowns of these countries are now separate, their union in the person of Charles III reveals the institution of monarchy as the summation of so much of what unites the CANZUK nations. Monarchy is a perfectly reasonable (as opposed to rationalist) form of government, but there is also something deeply otherworldly and spiritual about it. Helen Andrews wrote somewhere that legitimacy is just another word for magic, and mysticism and monarchy go hand in hand.
Rationalists contend that monarchy is an outmoded and reactionary constitutional form that is structurally oppressive, and which will inevitably be swept away by the onward march of progress. Better to do it now, our republican friends argue, rather than to wallow in fetid nostalgia for a world that never was.
A lesson that conservatives should learn is that inevitablists are always wrong in their manner of thinking. To be sure, sometimes their prognostications do take place, but historical events are the result of decisions made by individuals and consented to, even if by mere passive acquiescence, by other individuals. Nothing in history is inevitable: everything is in play. This is reassuring insofar as it means there is broad scope for action, whether it is preserving lasting things or accomplishing new feats. But it also lays bare that there is a great deal of work required by any of the tasks we hope to achieve.
Barbados is an emblematic case in point. The political class steamrolled the idea of replacing the monarchy with a republic in a manner that was completely legitimate in the Westminster-based system. Referendums are tricky and sometimes sit uneasily in our way of doing things. While they are the creations of parliamentary sovereignty in law, they also have a tendency to undermine Westminster systems in practice. But the fact that the bipartisan political consensus in Barbados didn’t dare consult the people on so fundamental a constitutional change is telling. It seems obvious that they would have had to lay their cards on the table and face an actual free and open debate. Proponents of constitutional monarchy are right to doubt whether the republican side would have won a referendum.
Smith and Klimczuk waste little time on nostalgia but instead focus on appreciating an enduring bond that still has visible and practical benefits, built on a strong foundation of common experience and sacrifice. In a globalised world, having a figure of longevity who exists outside of and above politics is obviously useful for integrating newcomers and fostering a sense of belonging in a way that electing a retired politician as a moderately ceremonial head of state (but often with significant reserve powers occasionally in need of deployment) fails to accomplish.
Despite the continual allure and glamour of America’s economic success and cultural hegemony, the divisive political culture of the United States is the envy of no one. There are, however, ways in which the United States has preserved a traditional British order better than the Commonwealth realms. An Italian friend of mine argues that the U.S. is actually the sole surviving ancien régime power, as it is the only one in which the monarch has real, significant, expansive, and effectively accepted and unchallenged powers. That his reign is time-limited and that he is selected by an agreed democratic method has helped to solidify the American executive’s legitimacy.
Democratic republican forms are so omnipresent across the planet that their obvious legitimacy is taken forgranted, even when many countries fall far short of being models of good governance. As the authors point out, the fact that constitutional monarchy today needs to justify itself every generation rather than rely on the assumptions of legitimacy actually makes it much more accountable rather than less so.
Smith and Klimczuk argue that the formal Commonwealth as an institution made a fundamental break in 1949 when it was decided to let India become a republic and remain a member of the club:
By abandoning the integrating influences and central position of the Crown, by doing everything to placate India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a new Commonwealth was created that had very little essentially in common with the old British Commonwealth.
Should we accept this narrative of divergence? The argument is reasonable, but it’s also arguable that the change was a perfectly natural evolution. And if the goal of keeping India in was significant enough, then surely it was worth it. The authors do explain that the 1949 decision was greatly aided by the fact that arch-royalists Churchill, Smuts, and Menzies were all out of power, and that the patriotic Clement Attlee was desperate to keep India in, in order to assuage the blow to British prestige of its quick-job independence and partition.
It is intriguing that South Africa and India’s nationalist governments worked together to ensure India could remain in the Commonwealth as a republic. The party of apartheid desired a similar goal for South Africa but knew it had to tread more carefully for domestic reasons. When South Africa did eventually abolish its monarchy it was by hook and crook: fiddling with voting ages, allowing citizens of today’s Namibia to vote despite their country being neither annexed by nor integral to the Union of South Africa.
The Commonwealth’s reaction to South Africa’s led the crusade against allowing the apartheid state to stay in the Commonwealth unless its racist raison d’être was abandoned, resulting in South Africa’s many decades-long absence from the Commonwealth.
Though the authors don’t say it, it’s difficult to avoid concluding from their book that the formal Commonwealth of Nations today is a somewhat hollow institution—an impressive but toothless biennial heads-of-government summit with a quadrennial sporting event attached. (And even then, the Australian state of Victoria’s decision to cancel its agreed hosting of the 2026 Commonwealth Games throws the future of that sporting gathering into confusion.) But the ongoing cooperation—for example, when faced with an increasingly threatening Communist China—between this quartet of old friends shows that the bonds forged by the Commonwealth’s history are far from irrelevant or insubstantial in an increasingly globalised world.
This essay appears in the Fall 2023 edition of The European Conservative, Number 28:98-100.