Is Prince Harry right to take a pop at the Queen's Commonwealth?

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·7-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories

What happened?

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle joined a conversation with young leaders from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) in which they discussed racism and unconscious bias, and acknowledged a need to feel “uncomfortable” while past wrongs were righted.

Harry, 35, the Queen’s grandson, said: “When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past, and – guess what – everybody benefits.”

The Commonwealth, a voluntary organisation involving 54 nations (the highest membership it has ever had), is understood to be the achievement the Queen is most proud of from her reign. She has visited every nation bar two, Cameroon and Rwanda, that joined more recently.

Harry and Meghan are president and vice president respectively of the QCT. The QCT says it does not represent the views of anyone in the Royal Family.

EMBARGOED TO 1300 BST, Monday July 6 2020. Framegrab from video supplied by The Queen's Commonwealth Trust (QCT), of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex joining a session (Wednesday July 1, 2020) hosted by the trust to look at 'fairness, justice and equal rights'. In response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, QCT has been running a weekly discussion with young people looking at various forms of injustice on the experiences of young people today.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex spoke to young leaders in the Queen's Commonwealth Trust. (QCT)

Why there’s debate

Harry’s comments have drawn fierce criticism in parts of the UK press, with accusations he does not understand history or the origins of the organisation.

It forms part of an ongoing debate around racism and racial injustice around the world that has been sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US.

The debate includes calls for radical change to tackle structural and institutional racism, something Harry called “endemic” in another recent message.

Some institutions have acknowledged or been told they have a past that needs to be addressed, like the Church of England or the Home Office. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby apologised for slavery in February, and said the church should “repent and take action” in June.

A report into how the Home Office dealt with the Windrush scandal found there was a culture of carelessness, and “institutional thoughtlessness” in dealing with cases.

But Harry is accused of conflating the Commonwealth with the British Empire.

Many say the Commonwealth is a force for good and has done much to progress beyond Britain’s slave owner past.

However, others say the organisation is not truly voluntary as the countries involved would be at a disadvantage without it.

What’s next

There’s no doubt the conversation about racism and injustice will continue, and Harry and Meghan appear to be keen to be a big part of that.

Whether or not the couple can expect any personal reprimand from their grandmother will remain unknown – though it seems unlikely that the Queen will take any action against Harry and Meghan, as they don’t carry out engagements on her behalf and the QCT isn’t representative of any royal views.

Read more: 9 things the Queen has said about the Commonwealth she gave 'heart and soul' to

Perspectives

The Commonwealth has a strange magic, and is a ‘one-off’

Prince Harry is a sweet-natured, kind soul. But even he would not suggest he was the world’s greatest historian. If he knew more about the Commonwealth, he would appreciate its strange magic. In 1949, his great-grandfather, George VI, presided over the Commonwealth’s inauguration. In its 71-year history, there have only been two Heads of the Commonwealth: George VI and the Queen. The Commonwealth is a complete one-off. Founded in the declining years of the British Empire, it has pulled off a sort of happy magic trick. The forced authority of the Empire over colonies has been replaced by a voluntary association of those former colonies. – Harry Mount, The Daily Telegraph

If Harry believed in equality he would argue against the monarchy

His comments are a massive symbol of the flagrant hypocrisy of the woke ideology. Here you have a member of the Royal Family – who are the most significant beneficiaries of imperialism and colonialism – lecturing ordinary people on what they should do to reflect on the Commonwealth’s role in the past. If Harry believed in total equality he would be arguing against the Monarchy itself. I also think he is wrong, because I don’t see any evidence that we have ignored the sins of the British Empire. We talk about colonialism and its horrors are taught in history lessons in school. – Inaya Folarin Iman, The Sun

The Commonwealth is Empire 2.0

The Commonwealth is a vessel of former colonies with the former imperial master at its helm. Or, as I like to call it, Empire 2.0. All countries use diplomacy to lobby in their own interests – there is nothing wrong with that. In Britain’s case, the Commonwealth has served very nicely to advocate its particular shopping list: liberalised, extractor-friendly regimes, low corporate tax rates, and a creative system of tax havens predominantly located in – you guessed it – other Commonwealth countries.... The Commonwealth is ultimately a voluntary organisation – unlike, obviously, the empire – and its members choose to stay. At the end of the empire, only Burma, Aden and the Republic of Ireland did not. Has it been a meaningful choice? For the majority of members, the 32 countries whose population is less than 1.5 million, that’s questionable. – Afua Hirsch, The Guardian

No one is compelled to join - and nations come back

Just as no one has ever been compelled to join this club, so those who leave or who get kicked out soon end up trying to get back in (the Maldives have just been readmitted after a few years in the cold). It is hard to think of an organisation which has had a better record in confronting colonial oppression in modern times, be it bringing about the end of white rule in Rhodesia or fighting apartheid in South Africa. One of Nelson Mandela’s first executive acts on being elected president of a new and democratic South Africa in 1994 was to resume its membership of the Commonwealth (before it even returned to the UN). – Robert Hardman, The Daily Mail

Someone can love the Commonwealth and believe it can improve

Apparently stating facts and history is being perceived as delivering an emotional punch to Her Majesty, an elderly woman. Because she loves the Commonwealth so much. But you can love the Commonwealth, and Harry wouldn’t be President of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust if he didn’t care about it, while also understanding the reality of its beginnings – both things can be true. In fact, both things *should* be true if improvement is to happen. But this is why white fragility is such a barrier to improvement and change. Harry was actually trying to center the feelings of the marginalised. – Elaine Lui, Lainey Gossip

There’s no dirty secret about the Commonwealth

My view is that I don’t think the Commonwealth has anything in particular to be ashamed of. There were parts of our history that were bad, but that’s not particularly remarkable. The idea that we all have a rosy, upbeat view of the Empire as being simply good and nothing ever bad happened... I’d be very surprised if most Brits aren’t aware of our involvement in slavery. I find the notion that there’s some dirty secret about the Commonwealth extraordinary. – Prof Nigel Biggar, University of Oxford, The Daily Telegraph

These discussions might re-energise the Commonwealth

The fact remains that what its members essentially have in common is the national experience of being part of the British Empire. One problem of the Commonwealth is that its constituency of active supporters has been ageing, and discussion have become terribly platitudinous. By contrast, issues around reparations, race, the Windrush Saga are things that really grasp the imagination of young people. Although it might be uncomfortable for Britain, it might re-energise the Commonwealth and I think Harry and Meghan are right about that. – Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, The Daily Telegraph

The negatives of the Commonwealth outweigh the positives

I do accept that the Commonwealth games are splendid, that some excellent work is done by the association and connected satellite charities, that scholarships and education initiatives are wholly admirable, that connecting peoples in this increasingly fragile and splintered world is important and necessary. But the negatives far outweigh the positives. Clubs of the privileged are suspect at the best of times, but this global one reflects and embodies conservative, archaic values and, more alarmingly, has long undercut and subverted the central modern principles of equality, human rights, democracy and accountability. - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, International Business Times