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Meghan and Harry interview reignites debate over abolishing the monarchy in former British colonies

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II delivers her annual Commonwealth Day message at Windsor Castle. (Reuters)

On Monday, former British colonies from Antigua to Zambia observed Commonwealth Day, an occasion traditionally marked by flag-waving, parades and celebratory addresses from the British royal family.

But this year’s celebration was overshadowed by Oprah Winfrey’s explosive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, which unfurled new allegations of racism against members of the royal family and served as a reminder of the monarchy’s ugly colonial history.

The tell-all has ignited fresh debates about abolishing the monarchy in some of the 54 nations that make up the commonwealth. Calls to remove the vestiges of a colonial past have gained momentum over the past year, fueled by protests against racism and oppression worldwide. Now some politicians have been forced to address whether it still makes sense to retain Queen Elizabeth II as a ceremonial figurehead.

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In recent days, some of the loudest calls to sever ties with the monarchy have come from Australia. On Monday, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the interview demonstrated that the country’s official head of state “should be an Australian citizen, should be one of us, not the queen or king of the United Kingdom.” He noted that many Australians are fans of Queen Elizabeth II, rather than the monarchy in general — making it unclear if they’d embrace her successor.

Members of Australia’s Labor Party have expressed hopes that the explosive interview will reignite the decades-old movement to make Australia a republic. A 1999 referendum on removing the queen as head of state was unsuccessful, but in a Tuesday video, MP Matt Thistlethwaite called it “high time” to put the issue back on the agenda.

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, spoke with Oprah Winfrey about turning away from life as senior royals in an interview that aired on March 7, 2021. (Video: The Washington Post)

Julian Hill, a Labor Party member of Australia’s Parliament, wrote on Twitter that the royal family’s drama is “irrelevant to modern Australia.”

“Their latest pathetic privileged escapades remind us we need an Australian as Head of State,” he added.

Even before the interview aired, some factions in former British colonies in the Caribbean were growing increasingly queasy about their lingering ties to a nation that built its wealth through the slave trade. In September, Barbados announced plans to remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” Gov. Gen. Sandra Mason explained at the time. Jamaican leaders have expressed interest in following suit, as have some in St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

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During Sunday night’s interview, Meghan suggested that her biracial heritage could have inspired a new appreciation for the royal family across the commonwealth, given that “60, 70 percent” of its population is people of color. During her travels with Harry, she often met girls and women who were touched to “see someone who looks like them in this position” for the first time, she said.

“I could never understand how it wouldn’t be seen as an added benefit, and a reflection of the world today,” she said.

Instead the couple’s claim that they were questioned by a member of the royal family about how dark their baby’s skin would be set off a firestorm on Caribbean social media. “She is way lighter skinned than most of us,” the Jamaican broadcaster Dionne Jackson Miller wrote on Twitter, wondering out loud if the remark could “be a turning point” in the movement to make Jamaica an independent republic.

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Meanwhile, support for a break with the monarchy is growing in Canada, where a February poll found record levels of support for removing the queen as head of state. Nearly half of the Canadians surveyed backed the idea, and experts predict that the Sunday night interview will push public sentiment further in that direction.

But achieving that goal would be a challenge, since all 10 provincial legislatures, as well as the national House of Commons and Senate, would need to get on board. Past efforts to change Canada’s constitution led to a referendum on Quebecois secession “and the country almost broke up,” Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, said in an interview with the Canadian Press.

“I can understand some people are looking for constitutional conversations,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a Tuesday news conference. “I am not going to engage in those right now. I am focused on getting us through this pandemic.”

Similarly, a symbolic split with the monarchy seems unlikely to occur in New Zealand anytime soon.

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“I’ve said before that I’ve not sensed an appetite from New Zealanders for significant change in our constitutional arrangements, and I don’t expect that’s likely to change quickly,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters at a Monday news conference.

Amanda Coletta contributed to this report.