Debate On Monarchy's Ties To Commonwealth Reignited After Queen Death

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Debate On Monarchy's Ties To Commonwealth Reignited After Queen Death
Fourteen countries retain the British sovereign as their head of state. Should the country begin a process of constitutional change?

During Queen Elizabeth II's reign, British soldiers committed widespread atrocities against Kenyans at the height of the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960. Roughly 1.5 million people were forced into concentration camps, subjected to torture, rape and other violation. 

It's little wonder that on the streets of Nairobi, people's memories of colonial Britain — an empire fundamentally connected to monarchy — are not often positive.  

"I remember the Mau Mau struggle with a lot of bitterness," Nairobi resident Max Kahindi said. "One: I was young. But even as young as I was, we suffered a lot. Our fathers, our uncles, our relatives — they either were in detention or they were killed. It is a lot of bitter memories."

Unlike Kenya, which declared independence in 1963, there are 14 countries that retain the British sovereign as their head of state.  

On Saturday, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda announced plans to hold a referendum on becoming a republic. And debates that have rumbled on for years about ties to the monarchy have been reignited across the Commonwealth, from Australia to Canada to the Caribbean.   

"I think mainly out of respect for Elizabeth II, these discussions were not taking place," historian Ed Owens said. "There was, I think, an anticipation that these conversations would start when the new king came to the throne, and that's what we're seeing."

The recent visit of Prince William and Kate to Jamaica earlier this year triggered debates about Britain's colonial past.

From the photos of Will and Kate shaking hands with Jamaican children through a wire fence, to the military parade in which the pair stood dressed in white in an open top Land Rover — the optics were described as a throwback.

As the trumpets rang out amidst the pomp and ceremony of centuries old tradition, few inside the 900-year-old Westminster Hall would have questioned the existence of monarchy in Britain in 2022.

But for Race on The Agenda Chief Executive Maurice McLeod, who is the son of South African and Jamaican immigrants to the U.K., the royal family and its connection to democratic constitution needs a complete rethink. 

"If we're talking about a world of freedom and inclusivity and equality, it just doesn't tally," he said. "They are the symbol of Britain's history and that's what they're held up as … But if you're doing that, you also have to take the bad. They're also the symbol of the Mau Maus, the symbol of all that slavery and oppression. You can't unpick those two things. And I think that's what's so difficult, especially in the Commonwealth."   

Queen Elizabeth II was the living embodiment of an institution, which, for some, bears no rational justification whatsoever; in fact, a hereditary position that harks back to an era in which atrocities, genocides even were committed in the name of the crown all over the globe. Should this country now begin a process of constitutional change?

"I think looking at what certain countries have done recently to reject the royal family, to remove them from state — it's time to move on, I think," said Feliks Mathur, the son of an Indian immigrant.

"They're going to have to change all the pound coins and that sort of thing. The queen's image is synonymous with Britain," said Kemi Akinola, the daughter of Nigerian and Granadian immigrants. "We might be looking at how this relationship will develop and what the modern-day monarch will look like to the U.K. moving forward, and now is a good time to start doing that."

"I don't really think, to be honest with you, that it has any great relevance. We have moved on," Jamaican immigrant to the U.K. Noel Taylor said. "And as far as I'm concerned, coming from an African-Caribbean background, I don't see monarchy has played any definitive role in advancing our way of life."  

The death of the queen brings the constitutional role of monarchy in 21st century Britain and 14 other Commonwealth countries into sharp focus.