By Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

‘Frustrate their knavish tricks

On thee our hopes we fix’

The announcement this morning that the Queen will not be attending the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka in November has been described as ‘surprising and significant.’ Although the Palace has been at pains to stress the review of long-haul travel for the 87 year old monarch, given the private debate among the Queen’s advisers and Downing Street on how to handle the increasingly problematic question of the Queen’s attendance at the Sri Lanka CHOGM, at one level it seems that the Palace have played a blinder.

Seen against the history of the Commonwealth, this is the art of Commonwealth diplomacy at its finest. Honour is satisfied on all sides: the formal head of the Commonwealth will stay away, the focus of human rights activism will now switch to the Prince of Wales and the Colombo meeting will act as a test of his credentials for the headship after his mother’s eventual death; yet the British monarchy has indicated its commitment to the Commonwealth, which is enduring yet another spectacular family row.


Family rows in the run up to CHOGMs are a well established tradition in the history of the Commonwealth. It is now conveniently forgotten that before the 1985 Nassau meeting, there were dark mutterings that it was a disastrous selection as Prime Minster Lynden Pindling was allegedly protecting international drug traffickers. The Thatcher government tried to use the possibility of the Queen’s non-attendance of the 1979 Lusaka CHOGM as a means to lever Zimbabwe black militants (via host President Kaunda) to declare at least a temporary ceasefire in their liberation war against Ian Smith’s government: Lusaka was indeed the front line of the Rhodesian war as the Rhodesian Air Force had bombed Joshua Nkomo’s headquarters in the Zambian capital only 3 months before. The Palace deftly trumped that Downing Street card by firmly announcing the Queen’s determination to attend.


Looking further back, the last time the Queen stayed away from a CHOGM meeting – in January 1971 in Singapore – was on the express advice of the Conservative government of the day. Then Britain was in the dock for the revival of arms sales to apartheid South Africa, which provoked intense criticism and renewed press comment of the Commonwealth in crisis. Singapore was described beforehand as ‘the conference which would destroy the Commonwealth’ while British Prime Minister, Edward Heath’s own commitment to the Commonwealth seemed suspect at best. The then Secretary General, Arnold Smith worried in the debate ahead of the conference, ‘that leaders would simply lecture each other and not consult and listen’. Certainly, the Commonwealth then was a very different family. The Commonwealth had a mere 22 members, the Queen did not formally open the meeting (an innovation by Secretary General Anyaoku at the 1997 Edinburgh CHOGM) and the meetings themselves lasted 10 days, with no Retreat for informal one-on-one discussions between heads of government, and its opportunities for private negotiation and ironing out of differences.  But the intensity of feeling was comparable to today’s controversy about the Sri Lanka CHOGM, both at governmental and civil society levels. Private diplomacy at Singapore, just as now, was the very life-blood of this unique extended family organisation. The Queen never repeated the mistake of the Singapore non-appearance.

Looking at the history of the Commonwealth shows up a cycle of crises and repeated gloomy predictions that it would fracture and break apart; but also the association’s remarkable ability to re-invent itself at critical points. The Queen’s absence and substitution of Prince Charles is another innovation in a well established tradition. For the Sri Lanka CHOGM, the attention now shifts to Downing Street. Don’t let’s be surprised if David Cameron discovers he has pressing business elsewhere in November, and Deputy PM Nick Clegg is substituted to represent him. What it is to have ‘an heir and spare’.