Debate over the future of the Commonwealth and Britain’s relationship with its former colonies has been fueled by claims of racism within the royal family in the aftermath of a TV interview this month of Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan, by media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
The couple said that a member of the royal family, who was not identified, had asked about the skin color of their son, Archie, before his birth. Meghan’s mother is Black, and her father is white.
The prince and his wife broke away from official royal duties last year, citing a need to escape press intrusion amid claims that negative media coverage of Meghan had been racially motivated.
The Commonwealth is made up of 54 countries, mostly former British colonies, with Queen Elizabeth II as its head.
Barbados, one of several Caribbean Commonwealth members, had already planned to remove the queen as head of state later this year. Former Barbadian Ambassador to Britain Guy Hewitt, who is now a pastor in Florida, told VOA that the interview raised questions about Britain’s relations with people of the Commonwealth.
“Regrettably, the interview — and I would say the previous separation that took place — reflected that the royal family still did not fully understand diversity, and literally did not know how to embrace it,” Hewitt told VOA. “Especially for a younger generation, Harry and Meghan symbolized that hope for a new way of being royal.”
In 2018, news emerged that Britain had wrongly denied citizenship rights to migrants from Caribbean colonies who arrived after World War II — the Windrush generation, named after the Empire Windrush ship that took them across the Atlantic.
Migrants who had the right to stay were forcibly deported. Others were denied health care and state benefits. Anthony Bryan, 62, was almost deported to his birth country of Jamaica in 2015, half a century after coming to Britain. Authorities told him he was in Britain illegally when he applied for a passport to go on vacation.
“It did break something,” Bryan said. “It broke the trust that I thought I had with the British.”
That sense of injustice, fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement, is feeding into a narrative that Britain is out of touch. Harry and Meghan’s claims of racism are confirming those suspicions, Hewitt said.
“The Commonwealth is invaluable to small states and to developing countries," he said. “However, it has to be able to prove that it is still relevant by being responsive to the needs and sensitive to the aspirations of people in the [global] south,” he said.
Reacting to Harry and Meghan’s television interview, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a republican who wants to sever links with the royal family, reiterated his call for Australia to abandon the British monarch as head of state.
Canada’s political opposition leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters, “I don't see the benefit of the monarchy in Canadians’ lives.”
'Not of mutual benefit'
The queen last visited Nigeria, the Commonwealth’s most populous Black nation, in 2003. The claims of racism within the royal family are a shock, Idayat Hassan, head of the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, said in a recent interview with VOA.
“It raises a lot of questions that maybe again, this relationship is not of mutual benefit,” she said. “This relationship has not transcended what it was in the colonial days.”
Hassan said many Nigerians thought Harry and Meghan’s marriage signaled a new chapter.
“Maybe we live too much in a make-believe world,” she told VOA. “In this present day and age, we feel that race is not real, and the world has actually moved on — moved way, way, way up. But somehow, again, we discover that race is still a factor.”
In a statement after the interview, the royal family said that it was dealing with Harry and Meghan’s claims privately and that “recollections may vary."
Both the queen and Prince Charles, who is next in line to the throne, have praised the Commonwealth in recent days and hailed its collective strength.
"On Commonwealth Day, I'm reminded once again that the essence of the Commonwealth is its remarkable diversity — a family of some 2.4 billion people from 54 nations across six continents whose traditions, knowledge and talents offer an incomparable richness of ideas and perspectives on the world we share,” Prince Charles said March 8 during a ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
"As we recover from everything that we have endured and continue to endure through this pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity to change course by harnessing the extraordinary potential of our Commonwealth family. We are uniquely placed to lead the way, so let us be the boldest of the bold, and let us offer an example to the world,” Charles added.
Claims of racism disputed
Supporters of the royal family reject claims that the institution is racist. Commentator Penny Junor has been covering the royals for 40 years in broadcast and print media. She said, “This is a family that I would say, you know, it's a family that is intertwined with the Commonwealth. I have never seen anything like racism.”
The debate shows there are deeper, historical issues that need addressing in Britain, Hewitt said.
“What may be required in the United Kingdom is that telling of truth, of unpacking a very long, oppressive, racist colonial history and starting to come to terms with and be reconciled to what it means in the 21st century,” he said.
Hewitt said the debate over the future of the Commonwealth would likely intensify when the British crown passed to Charles.