Editor’s note: We have published an updated version of this article reflecting Charles III’s reign.
Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-serving British monarch in history, having ascended to the throne in 1952 at age twenty-five. She is also the queen of more than a dozen other independent countries that were once under direct British colonial rule. In 2021, Barbados became the latest country to sever its ties with the Crown. Will others follow suit?
Where does Queen Elizabeth II reign?
Queen Elizabeth is not only the monarch of the United Kingdom (UK), but also of fourteen other countries, including Canada and others across the Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean. These are known as the Commonwealth realms. They are distinct from the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose grouping of fifty-four countries that were once part of the British Empire but most which are not still subjects of the queen.
Together, there are some 150 million people in the Commonwealth realms, the most populous of which are the UK, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand.
These countries are all independent and sovereign states. Still, the role of the queen is in many places a subject of controversy, since many gained their independence through uprisings against British colonial rule.
What powers does the queen have overseas?
Commonwealth realms are constitutional monarchies, meaning the monarch’s powers are largely symbolic and political decisions are made by an elected parliament and implemented by prime ministers. The queen is thus head of state but not head of government—meaning she is not involved in day-to-day governing. (In the United States, by contrast, the president is both head of state and head of government.)
The queen does have some constitutional duties, the most significant being the approval of new governments. Depending on the country, she may formally approve legislation, appoint certain officials, or grant state honors. In non-UK realms, the queen appoints a royal representative to carry out these duties. This figure is known as a governor-general.
In exceptional circumstances, the Crown also has what are known as “reserve powers,” or the authority to unilaterally override other branches of government. This has happened rarely since World War II, the most notable example being Australia’s 1975 constitutional crisis, in which the governor-general dismissed a sitting prime minister.
Most fundamentally, the purpose of the queen is to serve as a nonpartisan symbol of the nation, constitutional continuity, and moral authority—official documents are often marked with the royal seal and the queen’s visage featured on local currency. Her many trips to the Commonwealth realms have helped kindle an affection and loyalty even in countries where the republican movement is strong, such as Jamaica. The royal family has long been a source of British soft power and diplomatic influence, though that has been undermined in some realms due to accusations by Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle of racism within the family.
Why have some countries left?
Nearly twenty former British territories renounced their monarchies and became republics after World War II, including India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. This has generally meant replacing the queen with another head-of-state figure, often a president whose role is also largely ceremonial. For countries that saw their monarchies as unwelcome remnants of colonialism, this was the final step in distancing themselves from its last vestiges.
The 1970s saw the last major wave of departures, with Caribbean countries Dominica, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, left in 1992. Barbados is the latest to exit, having officially left the monarchy behind by swearing in a president on November 30, 2021.
Barbadian leaders framed the move as a long-awaited culmination of independence: “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” said Governor-General Sandra Mason in announcing the exit. The date was set to coincide with the fifty-fifth anniversary of Barbados’s independence from the UK.
What could the future hold for other Commonwealth realms?
Barbados’s decision has added to recent movements in some other countries, especially in the Caribbean, to reconsider their ties to the queen.
Part of the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the world in 2020, protests in the UK have often focused on the repercussions of slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies and the role it played in the empire’s wealth and global power. Some British companies involved in the slave trade have promised to make amends, but Barbados and the other members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have pressed European governments for full reparations. Jamaica, where the movement to break with the monarchy has been gaining steam, has directly petitioned Queen Elizabeth for reparations for the Crown’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness went a step further in March 2022, announcing that the country intends to become fully independent of the monarchy.
Analysts differ on the likelihood that other countries will reject the Crown. Kings College’s Richard Drayton, a historian, has argued that “Barbados could be a tipping point” in that regard. Yet, Aaron Kamugisha of Barbados’s University of the West Indies says the impact is likely to be limited, especially given that some countries have stricter requirements for the change.
In Canada, for instance, it would require a constitutional reform, meaning the unanimous assent of the ten provinces as well as parliament. Canadian support for republicanism remains below a majority, but it has grown sharply in the last year. And yet another factor in Canada and elsewhere is the popularity of Queen Elizabeth. Experts say that she commands a level of respect not yet earned by much of the rest of the royal family, creating unpredictability for her successor.