The Queen’s Commonwealth: Monarchy and the End of Empire, 1945-2011

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A nebulous role

The Commonwealth prime ministers’ meeting, which opened on 22 April 1949, seized upon the idea of the King as a symbol of Commonwealth association when seeking to frame the terms under which India would recognise him as Head of the Commonwealth. This was a particularly valuable notion given the determination of the prime minister of South Africa, D F Malan, to avoid any suggestion that the Commonwealth itself was a separate constitutional entity. Malan’s concerns were addressed in two ways. First, the words ‘as such’ were inserted into the final Declaration, so that it spoke of India’s ‘acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such Head of the Commonwealth’ [author’s italics]. Secondly it was agreed specifically to put on record that the new title did not imply that the King discharged any constitutional function by virtue of the headship.1 The question of whether the headship should be hereditary was not even addressed.

So nebulous was the thing that had been created at the London conference of 1949 that as late as the 1969, G A Duggan of the FCO’s Commonwealth Co-ordination Department, admitted to his colleagues that the headship of the Commonwealth ‘in the negative. It involves no constitutional duties, no ties of allegiance by individuals, no obligation to visit and does not find any expression in a formal international context.’2 The Palace agreed. As the Queen’s private secretary, Michael Adeane, noted in September 1959, ‘No constitutional function was attached to it [at the time of the London declaration] and none can belong to it now because no Head of the Commonwealth could act in a commonwealth [sic] sense without constitutional advisers and no such commonwealth advisers exist.’3 Adeane’s remark touched on perhaps the central constitutional issue surrounding the headship of the Commonwealth. The defining feature of a constitutional monarchy is that, except in very limited circumstances, the sovereign only acts in a political capacity on the advice of their ministers. This both ensures that policy is determined by elected representatives and shields the monarch from political criticism. Yet there were no ministers capable of advising the monarch on a Commonwealth-wide basis. Furthermore, at least in the years immediately after the London Declaration, some of the Queen’s prime ministers were keen that as head of the Commonwealth she should do nothing to suggest that the Commonwealth itself was a constitutional entity in its own right. As such, when in 1957 it was suggested that she might address the United Nations in her capacity as head of the Commonwealth, the South African government objected and the idea was dropped.4 Indeed, it was not until 1997 that the Queen was given a formal role in the biennial Commonwealth heads of government meetings (CHOGMs).

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