A Guide to the Contemporary Commonwealth

By W. David McIntyre | Go to book overview

7
The Head of the Commonwealth

During the Edinburgh Chogm in 1997 the British hosts perpetrated a minor coup by getting agreement in principle that the Prince of Wales would succeed to the Headship of the Commonwealth. This was done in an oblique fashion without, it seems, discussion by the Heads of Government. It is probable that a good number of them did not understand some of the implications of what they were doing. The Communiqué simply recorded that Heads of Government endorsed the report of an Inter-governmental Group on Criteria for Membership and that one of these criteria was acceptance of ‘Commonwealth norms and conventions’. One has to read the group’s report to discover that these norms included acceptance of the ‘British monarch’ as Head of the Commonwealth. When asked at the final press conference what the use of the term ‘British monarch’ did to the status of the Canadian monarch, Prime Minister Tony Blair (who clearly did not understand the question) shrugged it aside with a laugh. One observer commented that it was ‘the silliest question of the conference’. However, a senior public servant suggested that the decision about the Headship was the most significant outcome of the Edinburgh meetings.

He was right, because symbols are important even if, as in Edinburgh, they are rarely analysed or discussed. Elizabeth II, in her role as Head of the Commonwealth, provides the association’s best-known and most visible symbol. The symbol may lack the fervour and mass excitement of the Commonwealth Games, but it is an on-going symbol, which is seen at many levels and in many countries. It has dignity, colour and glamour which people enjoy and identify with, and for many years it provided the Commonwealth’s most popular element after the Commonwealth Games. 1 It is ironical, therefore, that the Queen’s visibility and continuity are most often associated

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