Happy Birthday to The Commonwealth: could this be Britain's future?

I was surprised to learn that 2009 is the 60th anniversary of The Commonwealth—the association of former British colonies that still, amazingly, continue to work with each and talk to each other on a variety of issues. This would be a cause for celebration, one would think. And it appears there have been some. But I only learned about it when we visited Marlborough House, which is where the Commonwealth members meet from time to time to have their pictures taken, and who knows what else. It’s actually difficult to know, because the UK government has made no effort to publicise this event, which one would think would be a cause for celebration. The entertaining but not hugely informative Commonwealth website is here–there’s certainly a lot of stuff going on.

As the ever-lengthening shadows of the British Empire eventually turned into a permanent dusk, the British, still looking for some place in the world, decided to hitch their star to the Americans—you know, the Special Relationship. As we have discussed previously, this has been something of a one-way street, and it keeps backfiring. And it appears that, you know, lessons have not been learned, still. One of the hallmarks of the Conservative Party these days is its desire to withdraw from Europe to some extent (which would complicate lots of things) and forge an even closer relationship with America. William Hague, the former leader of the Conservatives and now the Shadow foreign secretary (and expected to be actual Foreign Secretary in the event the Tories win the next elections) is a strong proponent of the Anglosphere. After the fiascoes of Iraq and Afghanistan, the debacle of the financial meltdown (which is being felt more strongly in the UK than practically everywhere else), and the constant breakdown of everything the British try based on an American model of something (health care, privatization of highways, whatever), one would think that the British might have benefited from experience. Apparently not. Still, one can sympathize with the desire to remain a player on the world stage—this is still a rich and powerful country, with THE major international city as it capital.

However, there’s another route to follow, although successive British governments appear unwilling to consider it. And that is to take the Commonwealth seriously. If Britain—or more specifically England (since Scotland will likely go its own way at some point), does not want a closer alliance with the European Union, and has learned (finally, we hope) that an alliance with the US is not all it’s cracked up to be, there’s a third option. And that is to become a leading presence in the Commonwealth, and, more importantly, make the Commonwealth mean something economically and geopolitically.

Just look at who’s in the Commonwealth—there are 53 countries (and you can find them all here). And they all have some relation to Britain. Yes, they were all colonies of Britain at some point (except for Mozambique, which was a Portuguese colony, actually—we’re not quite sure how it fell into Commonwealth membership). They’re all over the world. There are Commonwealth members on every single continent expect Antarctica (where the British Antarctic Territory has yet to apply for commonwealth membership—but of course it’s not a country, so it can’t). The list includes some very large countries, both geographically (Australia and Canada) and by population (India and Pakistan), and some very small ones—Samoa, Vanuatu. There are economies in various stages of development—from the very rich (Britain and Canada) to the rapidly developing (India again, Pakistan) to the very poor (Jamaica, Nauru). There are some of the most stable countries in the world, and some of the most troubled. There are some of the whitest countries in the world to some of the darkest. Some are very Christian, some are very Muslim, and are very Hindu, and some are all over the place. And the list includes some of the most complicated and interesting countries trying to work through a myriad of problems—South Africa and Pakistan, for example. And then there are the countries not there, but either who might be again (Zimbabwe, that poor country, or Fiji, suspended in September 2009), or won’t be but where the British influence is still having important ramifications (Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997 when its sovereignty was transferred to China).

What binds this extraordinarily diverse range of countries together? Well, obviously, they were all part of the British Empire at some time. And whatever one thinks of the Empire, you can’t deny that it was (1) big, and (2) global. The sun really didn’t set on it. In Roland Huntford’s wonderful Scott and Amundsen, about the race to the South Pole, Huntford recounts how Scott could travel from England to Antarctica without leaving the Empire at any time. And, for all the savagery with which the Empire was sustained at times, there was also a positive legacy of (often) a functioning legal infrastructure, an educational system, a civil service. These weren’t always sustained, of course, but in many places they were. And then there’s English, which everyone in the world speaks, and which usually has been ingrained in these countries as the basic language of, well, most things, including their legal and business systems. And speaking of the legal system, it’s pretty well established in most of these countries. And there’s more. If the Commonwealth were an economic bloc, it would be about the size of the US economy. And it clearly has the potential to be a formidable trading bloc—it already is, in fact, but it’s just not organized as one.

The mission statement itself is pretty vacuous, and you can tell that it’s deliberately mild:

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development.

Well, that’s certainly broad enough to pretty much include any country in the world, with some obvious exceptions. And it has a familiar ring to it—it sounds like America exporting democracy to Latin America, for example, and we know what a double-edged sword that has been over the past century and a half. But the follow-up is actually pretty direct an unambiguous:

Beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, it is the association’s values which unite its members: democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all. These values were agreed and set down by all Commonwealth Heads of Government at two of their biennial meetings (known as CHOGMs) in Singapore in 1971 and reaffirmed twenty years later in Harare.

But these are pretty strong goals if taken seriously. By and large, they are. It’s been the violations of these relatively abstract goals that have resulted in the suspension of both Zimbabwe and Fiji, and which kept South Africa excluded for decades.

I like to think of the Commonwealth as this constant flow of people, in movement constantly from one country to another, in a constant stream from one end of the globe to the other. But it clearly has London as its unofficial capital. Everyone comes here from Commonwealth countries—and the British, mainly the English, go everywhere. They’re always wandering around somewhere, either in the jungle, or some mountain in Asia somewhere, or landing in Morocco or someplace in North Africa somewhere and walking south. But it’s the in-migration that’s interesting. Anywhere you go in Britain there are a range of ethnic nationalities. I learned this from my citizenship test—while immigrants make up about 10% of the population of Britain now, they make up one third of London (although the recent spurt of growth in immigration has come from non-Commonwealth countries in Eastern Europe). So the mosaic of London is constantly enhanced by the variety of cultures and languages that meld here. And the same is true for Britain as a whole. Yes, there are parts of the country that are still classically English, and there are certainly people who resent what they perceive as the cultural intrusion—there are times when you’re painfully aware that this is indeed an island. And there are people coming to this little green island from all over, and they stay for a while—perhaps a lifetime. But many move on, or move back. And this keeps the flow going, constantly.

So this creates perhaps one of the most international cultural milieus to be found anywhere in the world. I don’t really know what’s comparable. New York is international as well, I suppose, but in a different way—people go there with the intent of staying there, or as a gateway to somewhere else in America. But there’s not that sense of permanence to the flows that characterize this intra-Commonwealth movement of people through London. Some stay, but most don’t. But this just keeps expanding a certain element of Britishness to the rest of the globe in a manner that, I think is probably unique among cultures. Yes, there’s a French sphere, but it’s largely confined to Africa. Russian influence has certainly faded the past twenty years, and that was always weird anyway. American influence is considerably more complicated—American consumerism and media appear wildly popular worldwide (or at least until the externalities catch up with us), but American notions of democracy transfer very unevenly, as we’ve seen.

Anyway, here’s my question. Is there some reason why Britain isn’t trying to make this something more of a political organization? It doesn’t appear that way. But why not? Given the apparent schizophrenia in Britain about whether or not to be more American, or whether or not to be more European—questions that won’t ever really be satisfactorily answered, at least within my lifetime—why not consider another alternative? Here’s this organization that, to varying degrees, does represent what Britain has brought to the world. Why not try to make something more of it? Why not try to establish the Commonwealth as something of a player? Here is this organization that embodies perhaps the most interesting, diverse, and yet coupled group of nations in the world, an organization that encompasses governments of countries spanning six continents, with a population of over 2.1 billion people. That’s nearly one-third of the global population. The Commonwealth is not a political organization. It’s actually something a bit weirder. But it’s also an organization which has as its specific goal the spread of democracy and human rights. Why not take this seriously?

There are lots of objections to Britain trying to make this organization “stronger”, of course. It’s not obvious that Commonwealth countries actually want something stronger, for one thing. Countries don’t get much more Republican than Australia, for example, in terms of their loathing for royalty. The notion of India and Pakistan drawing closer together seems absurd at present. Canada may, with some justification, regard their Commonwealth legacy as a cute anachronism, given its proximity to and inter-connectedness with the US. And smaller countries may resent, to varying degrees, the notion of former Colonial masters once again trying to impose economic or political measures—or even suggesting them. That Zimbabwe thing hasn’t exactly worked out. And given the range of ethnic, religious and political backgrounds of the countries, it may be patent foolishness to suggest closer integration. And while there has been some abstract discussion of a Commonwealth Free Trade Agreement, it hasn’t progressed very far. Pursuing a more commonwealth-friendly economic set of policies may find resistance from both Europe and the US, of course—but that doesn’t necessarily mean walking away from either—although it may mean some readjustment of relations with both. This may be no bad thing.

And yet, and yet…the Commonwealth does include one-third of the world’s population, who all speak the same language, and who undeniably share (for better or worse) a cultural and political legacy. Why not try to make something more of it? At the very least, it would provide an interesting diversion from the tedious arguments about whether or not Britain is part of Europe. So Happy Birthday, Commonwealth. Here’s to 60 more years.

The above stamp was issued by The Royal Mail to commemorate the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in 1977.

2 replies »

  1. Interesting piece. It sounds like you have to make this sale on a business level only. The historical baggage is maybe too much to overcome. Just as you get Washington when you take on America – London is a powerful icon with loads of it’s own meaning.

    I’m curious, London may be one third immigrants – but I’d bet they don’t hold one third of the real power. England is a very classist society. You still need to be educated in the right schools and know the right people for real power. America may not be so different…

    Interestingly my family left for America and Australia – I don’t think they saw themselves as European at all. English yes, European no.

  2. Thanks. Yeah, I know, there is quite a lot of baggage. That doesn’t seem to stop people from coming to London to hang out for a couple of years, though. So there’s something there–I just think no one has ever really bothered to try to figure out how to harness and direct it.

    And you’re right. This is a very class-driven society, still. It’s funny, though–most Americans who come here notice it. But whenever I mention it to someone English, they deny it. Actually, I do think America is more of a meritocracy. England is getting there, but it’s not there yet.