The Commonwealth is not ‘Empire 2.0’ 

A Guest Post

Since the release of the first portion of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Netflix docuseries two days ago, the media has been getting hoarse about how the, rather bland, program is damaging for the Royal Family, while the main target was no doubt the media themselves. However, in my opinion the most damaging portion of the documentary was the misinformation about the Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations, which maliciously attacks the legacy of the late Queen. 


We will first share the transcript of that portion of the series, before we discuss the individual elements of the statements. 

At the centre of the argument for the Monarchy in this country is the Commonwealth. The Queen made it her life’s mission to fight for this instigation. She’s famous for it. She’s deeply respected for having kept this institution together.

Britain calculated that it needed to grant these countries independence in a way that protected its commercial and capitalist interest so it creates this privileged club of formerly colonised nations called the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is still described as that, a club of friends who share common values. I find that language really problematic. I sometimes call the Commonwealth “Empire 2.0” because that is what it is.

We’ll it’s not changed a thing, they’ve just got better PR. If you look at black people in the Commonwealth, conditions are just as bad as they were 50 years ago or 100 years ago, and the roots of that poverty are based on the extraction of that wealth elsewhere.


Those in Britain who extracted that wealth continue to be inter-generationally wealthy, while those from whom it was extracted continue to be inter-generationally poor. It’s a very clear economic relationship. And yet the current narrative in Britain is that it is old history and there is no point in looking back. It’s incredibly painful for the very many millions of British people who have a very different memory of empire in their personal background.

And yet, here was woman who just looked like most of the people in the Commonwealth, Meghan represented something. There was a hope that maybe “Well, maybe this is a way of having these difficult conversations that had been pushed away so many times.”

The Commonwealth is an association of 56 member states of which King Charles III is Head, but only the Sovereign of fifteen of those nations, while five others have different Monarchs and thirty-six are Republics, including some who were never a part of the British Empire. Constituted in 1949, the most important legacy, through direct involvement of the late Queen, being the continuous effort to end apartheid in South Africa.

 The late Queen saw her role as Head of the Commonwealth separately from her role as Monarch of the United Kingdom and any of the Commonwealth Realm. The portion of the Head of the Commonwealth is not Hereditary and the current King was only confirmed as the Successor in 2018, with it not being a guarantee that he will be succeeded by his heirs in the future. While the Commonwealth was an integral element of the late Queen’s legacy, it has very little impact on the argument of the Monarchy in Britain nor in any of the other Commonwealth Realms, as that remains up to the individual nations to decide and they will remain a part of the Commonwealth as have most of the former Realms. 

The rest of the Royal Family does not have any automatic role within the Commonwealth but when the Queen made the newlywed Duke and Duchess of Sussex the President and Vice-President of The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT), the two of them aligned themselves with the organisation, the Prince being made a Commonwealth Youth Ambassador while the Duchess used Commonwealth Flowers on her Wedding Veil. However, except attending the Queen’s Young Leaders Awards in 2018 and the Commonwealth Youth Challenge Reception at Marlborough House, their involvement in the Commonwealth was quite limited until their exit from the Royal Family, with an event for young leaders one of their last events ahead of the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in 2020.

Britain’s granting of Independence to parts of their Empire was not a calculated step to protect their financial interests but one mandated by the United States, needed in the recovery of Britain after the Second World War, following which it was not the United Kingdom, but almost always either the Untied States or the Soviet Union who stepped in to ‘guide’ post-colonial governments.   

As someone from a South Asian background who has studied Political Development at the post-secondary level, the main culprits of post-colonial poverty are the IMF and World Bank, the results of the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, two institutions which anyone in the Global South know and fear thoroughly. However, talking about Britain’s “commercial and capitalist interest” in creating the Commonwealth has some credence of truth, if you look at it from a point of view of Cold War Politics, it was in the interests of the Western Bloc to prevent the Commonwealth States from giving up capitalism and joining the Soviets in the Eastern Bloc, though it is less about Britain maintaining their financial interests and more about the atmosphere of Cold War Politics. 

At the same time, politics and economics have changed since the Cold War, and these days it is India, and not the United Kingdom, which is the leading economy in the Commonwealth, thus the narrative is not true that Britain remains at the top after subjugating the Commonwealth in a post-colonial world, and instead it a relatively minor member in group of equals, with one major feat, the British Monarch is the Head of the Commonwealth. 

To claim that only through Meghan could there be a “way of having difficult conversation that had been pushed away so many times” is quite ridiculous and you only need to look at the words of the King and the Prince of Wales from just this year, which call for a reckoning with the Imperial Legacy with a great deal of tact and diplomacy.

The now King discussed reconciliation on a visit to Canada, saying:

I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to discuss with the Governor General the vital process of reconciliation in this country – not a one-off act, of course, but an ongoing commitment to healing, respect and understanding. I know that our visit here this week comes at an important moment – with indigenous and non-indigenous peoples across Canada committing to reflect honestly and openly on the past and to forge a new relationship for the future…

Then at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda, he said:

It seems to me that there are lessons in this for our Commonwealth family.   For while we strive together for peace, prosperity and democracy I want to acknowledge that the roots of our contemporary association run deep into the most painful period of our history.  I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact.

If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past.  Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.  Your Excellencies, conversations start with listening, and as The Queen said at our last meeting, the Commonwealth has always been and remains: “a global association… which believes in the tangible benefits that flow from exchanging ideas and experiences and respecting each other’s point of view.”

As recently as last month, for the South African State Visit, the King said: 

Of course, that relationship goes back centuries.  While there are elements of that history which provoke profound sorrow, it is essential that we seek to understand them.  As I said to Commonwealth leaders earlier this year, we must acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past if we are to unlock the power of our common future.

The then Duke of Cambridge also released a statement after the Royal Tour of the Caribbean:

 I know that this tour has brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future. In Belize, Jamaica and The Bahamas, that future is for the people to decide upon

Catherine and I are committed to service. For us that’s not telling people what to do. It is about serving and supporting them in whatever way they think best, by using the platform we are lucky to have.

It is why tours such as this reaffirm our desire to serve the people of the Commonwealth and to listen to communities around the world. Who the Commonwealth chooses to lead its family in the future isn’t what is on my mind. What matters to us is the potential the Commonwealth family has to create a better future for the people who form it, and our commitment to serve and support as best we can.”

To insinuate that all the transgressions of Empire would have been dissolved by the inclusion of Meghan in the Royal Family because she ‘just looked like most of them’ is extremely offensive to the people of the Commonwealth. It is equally as absurd to claim that Meghan was the most qualified person to be included in the organisation of the Commonwealth just for marrying into the Royal Family, despite her lack of citizenship of a Commonwealth country, and her own statement that she did did not face racism until her relationship with Prince Harry was made public. 

What Olusoga forgets that unlike the Duchess of Sussex, the current Commonwealth Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland, is a woman of colour  who was born in the Commonwealth Republic of Dominica and is a much better representative, through his words, because she is a “woman who just looked like most of the people in the Commonwealth.” By not mentioning the Baroness nor her callous treatment by certain authorities which were racially motivated, it is a missed opportunity to highlight the legitimate racism within the organisation of the Commonwealth faced by one of its leaders, rather than insert the brief role of the Sussexes into the narrative. Baroness Scotland said in a tribute to the late Queen: 

Today, the Commonwealth is larger, more diverse, more ambitious, and more effective than ever. Our delivery programme is more comprehensive and impactful than ever. And our ability to make the voices and experiences of the smallest nations and most vulnerable communities heard on the global stage is more powerful than ever.


A month after the interview with Netflix, David Olusoga had a different perspective when speaking to historians in the Empire Podcast after the Queen’s passing, speaking about the differences of opinion regarding her legacy:

Two difficult things can be true at the same time, two nuances of opinion. And those who have wilfully have put that aside sound callous.”

The discussion of Slavery, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth through the use of historians and authors on these issues feels particularly disingenuous because it is only being used to substantiate the vengeful claims made by Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and had they not have left the Royal Family and their roles within the Commonwealth in such a manner, this orchestrated discussion would never have been instigated by them. 

Instead there has been a conscious effort by forces, including the pro-Sussex figures in the media in particular, to undermine the role of the Royal Family within the Commonwealth, as was so evident with the Royal Tour of the Caribbean earlier this year, and also the narrative around Lady Susan Hussey last month, to corroborate the Sussex’s narrative. 

This is not coming from a place of legitimate critical analysis of the Slavery, the British Empire, or the Commonwealth, but from a place of vengeance because the Sussexes did not get to have their cake and eat it too. As Paul Bristow, the Vice-Chairman of the all-party group on the Commonwealth, described the organisation as: 

One of the great products of our history. Its inclusion in the Meghan and Harry soap opera was deeply insulting. The Commonwealth was incredibly important for Queen Elizabeth, and I am sure this will remain the same for King Charles. I think these comments are ill-informed and in no way reflect the modern Commonwealth.”

While the statements of these authors and historians are rooted in fact, they have been manoeuvred into bolstering the rewriting of the Sussex’s vengeful narrative. Had they addressed the legitimate racism faced by the Duchess and not inject an overall element of race over every single aspect of their relationship wile rewriting the narrative within this docuseries, it would have created meaningful dialogue about the insensitive language and ignited a conversation about race in modern society, but instead their rewriting of the narrative through the lens of race and the use of weighted language attacking the Queen and the Royal Family’s role in the Commonwealth and the very institution of the Commonwealth itself comes across as disrespectful at best and destructively offensive at worst.  

This article is a guest post by an anonymous author (who wishes to protect their identity but wants it to be known that they are a person of colour and a citizen of two Commonwealth nations), as part of a series of op-ed articles that reflect a variety of opinions. If you would like to publish your own take of this and other royal issues, please contact us!

Leave a Reply