Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

The Queen and her Successors as Heads of the Commonwealth

Richard Toporoski
There is a present threat to the position and title of “Head of the Commonwealth”. This threat is the canard, begun one knows not where but clearly promoted for years by the Commonwealth Secretariat on its Web site, that the title “Head of the Commonwealth” is not hereditary in the position of Sovereign of the United Kingdom and the other realms of the Commonwealth owing that Sovereign allegiance, but, after the Queen’s reign, will be conferred on anyone whom the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth may choose. The influence and spread of this theory was demonstrated when it was asserted, for example, during a three-part documentary, The Diamond Queen, shown on C.B.C. News Network in April and again in June, 2012. And, among other British media, it appeared in an article in the Daily Telegraph (repeated on the National Post’s Web site on 14 February, 2018), based entirely on unnamed “sources”.  The canard also seems to be connected with another false interpretation of history, that is, that the Commonwealth had its official beginning not in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster, but in 1949 with the London Declaration that India (and implicitly other countries) could retain membership of the Commonwealth as a republic. Independence and equality of status had been the sole criteria for and qualities of membership of the Commonwealth. Suddenly, by this new interpretation of when the Commonwealth began, optional republicanism has been made an additional quality of Commonwealth membership. Indeed, in this interpretation, that is the only significance assigned to the date 1949; it is never presented as the date of the origin of the position of the Sovereign as Head of the Commonwealth. To be sure, it must be acknowledged that the Heads of Government at their meeting in Kampala, Uganda, in November, 2007, implicitly weakened the position of the Queen as an essential component of the structure of the Commonwealth by agreeing “that, where an existing member changes its formal constitutional status [really code for replacing the Queen with a republic], it should not have to reapply for Commonwealth membership provided that it continues to meet all the criteria for membership” (one of which is at present stated to be the recognition of Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth). Hitherto, so essential had the position of the Queen been to the Commonwealth that any country which removed her as its Sovereign simply, ipso facto, ceased to be a member unless all the other members agreed unanimously that it should remain. This agreement is normally and therefore nearly always automatically granted, but the lack of such agreement is the technical reason for the lapse of membership of South Africa in 1961 and of Fiji in 1987 (strictly speaking, neither country at those times applied to continue its membership as a republic). Such situations will not now arise again.
But more significant (and dangerous) than the new policy that any future republics will automatically, without further consultation, retain their membership of the Commonwealth, the theory that the Queen’s successor will not inherit her position and title as Head of the Commonwealth is being promoted by maintaining that the Queen herself did not inherit this position and title automatically on her succession to her father as Sovereign but that somehow the heads of government of the Commonwealth conferred it on her. This assertion is proven utterly false by the facts of history. At the Queen’s accession, she was proclaimed in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand (contrary to the law governing the Royal Style and Titles as it then stood, which was observed in Canada and the Union of South Africa) “by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of all Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”. In Pakistan also she was proclaimed “Queen of Her Realms and Territories and Head of the Commonwealth” (Ceylon was content to proclaim her simply as “our Sovereign Queen”). No heads of government of any Commonwealth countries conferred this title on her and, when some countries used it in their proclamations of her accession, no heads of government of other countries objected to its use. Indeed, the one piece of evidence pointed to by those perpetrating this falsehood, a personal message to the Queen on 8 February, 1952, by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (a message by which they falsely maintain that Mr Nehru “initiated” the process by which the Queen became Head of the Commonwealth), proves to be no such evidence at all, but quite the contrary. In his message, the Prime Minister of the Republic of India obviously assumes that the Queen’s position is hereditary and therefore already assumed, because, as a fact, it is independent of any action by members of the Commonwealth, when he simply states, “May I also welcome Your Majesty as the new Head of the Commonwealth.” All the actions of Commonwealth governments which followed in connexion with this position and title of the Queen were to determine not its conferral on her but how to incorporate it into the Royal Style and Titles.
Indeed, had there been any thought in 1949 or in 1952 that the position was not irremovably attached to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom and his or her other realms, this would certainly have been known to the first Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the Canadian Arnold Smith, who took office in 1965. In his memoirs (Stitches in Time, 1981, p. 277) he recounts being present at the investiture of the Prince of Wales in July of 1969, when the Prince swore allegiance to his mother and her “heirs and successors, Queens and Kings…Heads of the Commonwealth for ever!” “The last six words hit me,” says Smith, “as a striking challenge at a time when the strains upon the Commonwealth were still daunting.” That is, the assertion of “for ever”, attached equally to the position of Head of the Commonwealth as to that of Queen or King, presented a challenge to fulfil, not a condition to be altered at the next succession.
The next Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Shridath Ramphal, of the Republic of Guiana, interviewed in 1998-99 by Deborah and Gerald Strober for their The Monarchy, An Oral Biography of Elizabeth II, likewise gives no hint (even at what would have been the so-called fiftieth anniversary of the new republicanly-interpreted Commonwealth) that the present Prince of Wales will not automatically succeed to the Queen’s position as Head of the Commonwealth. Indeed (p. 381), he asserts entirely the opposite. After pointing out that the Prince of Wales has tended to leave the Commonwealth to the Queen as her “turf”, “as her [his emphasis] thing”, he adds, “Now, when he accedes to the Throne, the Commonwealth will have been full-grown, and he will come to the position of head of the Commonwealth in a way that almost doesn’t require of him the nurturing that it required of the Queen. The Commonwealth has grown up, and as King of England [sic], he is going to relate well to the new Commonwealth. It’s going to be a very different kind of role, but I believe he will rise to the challenge.”
It could be argued further, indeed, that the very idea that the Sovereign for the time being of the United Kingdom and his or her other realms is not necessarily, by that fact, Head of the Commonwealth is illogical because it contradicts the very principle established by the London Declaration of 1949, that, though the Crown as an institution is no longer to be part of the constitution of India, the King himself personally, being recognised by the members of the Commonwealth to be the symbol of their free association, is therefore, by virtue of being that symbol, the Head of the Commonwealth. That “the King” in the Declaration also includes his successors as equally symbols of the free association of members of the Commonwealth and therefore necessarily its Head is proved not only by the legal principle that a legal pronouncement in the present tense is regarded as “always speaking”, but also in practice by the present Queen’s uncontested, because logical, succession to that position and title. When that position was so clearly vested by the member nations of the Commonwealth (the equivalent in 1949 of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting), in the person of the King himself, who else, logically in his or her own very person, can possibly serve as the symbol of the free association of the member nations of the Commonwealth? The position has absolutely no concrete substance and can be only, as the Queen has shown throughout her reign, what its holder makes it, but so powerful is its symbolic effect that its being held by anyone other than the Sovereign is not only unimaginable but ludicrous, because attempting to find some other Head would lead only to unseemly contention and weaken or even destroy the Commonwealth’s cohesion. What, for example, could become of a concept like the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, designed to protect forests throughout the Commonwealth, if there were no Queen or King as its patron?
The Commonwealth Secretariat tries to support its argument by asserting that “there is no maximum fixed term for the Head of The Commonwealth”. This is of course not a lie, it is merely nonsense, since the “term” has been the life or reign of whoever is the Sovereign. But then the Secretariat utters its bald-faced lie, which can be only their hope, working on the principle that, if a lie is repeated enough, it will be believed,  that “the choice of successive Heads will be made collectively by Commonwealth leaders”.
While this is a lie as it stands, it does point to the reality that the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth could, as they created and conferred it, also deprive the Sovereign of his or her position and title of Head of the Commonwealth. (This would not, of course, affect for the moment the Royal Style and Titles itself, which, as in the case of the mention of France and Ireland after the King no longer exercised sovereignty in those countries, would have to be altered independently in each Commonwealth country.) But it is to say that the Heads of Government would have to agree to take such action specifically, as they did when they created the position and title in the first place. They have not done so. When it required a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1949 solely to provide for India’s continued membership of the Commonwealth and to devise, under these changed circumstances, the new position of the King as Head of the Commonwealth, is it logical to think that just as radical an alteration to the structure and underlying assumptions of the Commonwealth could suddenly be made at the moment of (or rather after) the accession of a new Sovereign?  Is such a momentous change to be accomplished by long-distance telephone, e-mail, or Skype? If the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth really intended to deprive a subsequent Sovereign of the position and title of Head, they would surely have already begun at least a preliminary discussion of the matter. Or rather they would already have made a definitive decision at a CHOGM. The Commonwealth Secretariat, by repeating this untruth about the succession, appear to be trying to influence the Heads of Government to make such a change. At the CHOGM in 2015, a committee was set up to study the governance of the organisation itself. It was given no mandate to consider the Headship of the Commonwealth, but “sources”, again unnamed, are being quoted as saying that it will in fact discuss this matter.
Changes affecting the Queen’s symbolic position as Head of the Commonwealth have certainly been made; for example, no crown was ever designed to surmount the “C” in the Commonwealth flag, and a new Commonwealth Games flag was devised to remove the crown, both symbols of the Queen’s headship of this international organisation. But, in the absence of any specific and official action by the Heads of Government themselves,  which would be fraught with at least the psychological difficulties which I have pointed out, no further action is necessary to determine who shall hold the position and title after the Queen; the Sovereign for the time being will always inherit the position and title, because, in the absence of any contrary action by the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth, it will pass to the Queen’s successors automatically along with the Crown.