The London Declaration of 1949 stated that the British monarch would be a symbol of the free association of independent countries, and as such the Head of the Commonwealth. These words meant that republics could be members - they could accept the monarch as Head of the Commonwealth without being their own Head of State. Thus when Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952 she became Head of the Commonwealth.
Today the Queen is head of state in 16 of the 54 Commonwealth member countries, all of them fully independent in which – apart from the UK – she is represented by a governor-general.
When the Queen dies or if she abdicates, her heir will not automatically become Head of the Commonwealth. It will be up to the Commonwealth heads of government to decide what they want to do about this symbolic role.
The Queen has laid considerable stress on her role as Head of the Commonwealth, and made a great contribution to the association.
The sense of a new Commonwealth was noted by Queen Elizabeth at her accession to the throne. She said “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.’
The Queens role now includes, by developing tradition, a number of symbolic functions which enhance the sense of family and the vitality of the Commonwealth connection. She holds discussions with Commonwealth leaders, in national capitals, in London and during Heads of Government Meetings. She visits the host country during each summit, meeting the leaders in individual audience and at larger formal functions.
Her state visits have included most Commonwealth countries – not only those in which she is head of state – meeting the people as well as leaders. She delivers a Commonwealth Day broadcast and is present at other Commonwealth Day events including the multi-faith observance – traditionally held at Westminster Abbey – and the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s reception.