The Queen has taken a typically astute step in recommending the Commonwealth make Prince Charles its next titular head. She left the question of when he should take over from her to be decided by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London on Friday but it obviously needed to be sooner rather than later. The Queen, who turned 92 on Saturday, is no longer travelling overseas and Chogms are a globally moving feast.

But this looked like more than a purely practical handover. It seems highly symbolic on a number of levels. First, it reinforces the monarchy. Most Commonwealth citizens were probably unaware until now that the head of the organisation could be anyone other than a member of the royal family. The member countries are united only by their history in the British Empire and the institutions they gained from it. At their independence - mostly within the reign of this Queen - not many retained the monarch as their head of state but none had expressed an objection to her being head of the Commonwealth.

She has worn that title as proudly as any of those she carries, often invoking the Commonwealth in her speeches and always in her Christmas messages. In fact, it could easily have been assumed she felt an obligation to carry that title for life just as she does for her constitutional position in Britain.

That is the second level on which her nomination of Prince Charles to succeed her appears to have larger significance. While she believes duty forbids her passing the Crown to him in her lifetime, she has now made it very clear she expects him to succeed her. She will have heard the conjecture that Prince William would be a fresher and more popular successor but with this move she has made it clear there is no question of jumping a generation.


Prince Charles, if he outlives her, will succeed her. The Queen will also have heard the conjecture in all Commonwealth countries where she is still head of state, including New Zealand, that Charles' succession might be the moment we drop the monarchy. She effectively put that question to the Commonwealth Heads of Government last week and we know their answer.

Our own new head of government believes we will become a republic in her lifetime as did previous prime ministers. It seems a likely and safely vague prediction. But it seems less likely now that the accession of Charles will be the catalyst.

He could be an interesting King, less cautious than his mother and grandfather. He has been a long time preparing for the role and probably has his own ideas for developing it. We might even get a hint of them in his leadership of the Commonwealth.

The UK is looking to the Commonwealth with more interest and need, as it prepares to leave the European Union. It offers a more global alternative though more as a club of common heritage than trading interests. And the Commonwealth could do with the injection of purpose. Apart from its gabfests and the Games, it has been hard to say what it does. Its new leader could give it new life.