Where Britain Stands After the Commonwealth


Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, September 30th 2010

The Commonwealth has been much in the news of late. Sadly this hasn’t been for good reasons but bad ones showing the ineptitude, dirt and squalor of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi which open within the next few days.

This PR disaster has raised the spectre of what is the point of the Commonwealth Games – coming to Glasgow next time in 2014 – and more fundamentally, what is the point of the Commonwealth and would anyone miss it if we just quietly pulled the plug on the whole shebang?

The Commonwealth contains 54 members spanning six continents and 2.1 billion people – a third of humanity. It contains 16 members that the Queen is Head of State of, 33 republics, and a further five which have different monarchs.

Niall Ferguson in his blockbuster ‘Empire’ is scathing of the modern Commonwealth claiming that it is ‘little more than a subset of the United Nations and International Olympic Committee’.

A recent survey of 16-24 year old British young people found near complete ignorance about the Commonwealth. One in ten thought George Bush was the Head of State of the Commonwealth, while three-quarters thought the USA was a member and two-thirds could not say correctly how many countries were members.

Yet the idea of the Commonwealth and the legacy of Empire remain important to the whole notion of what ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ is. Winston Churchill summarised the context in which the UK placed itself in 1946 when he talked of the metaphor of Britain being at the point where three circles meet: the British Empire, Anglo-America and Europe.

This world view isn’t completely out of date, as political scientist Andrew Gamble after devolution and Iraq updated Churchill’s circles to: the British Union, the memory of the British Empire leading to the Commonwealth, Anglo-America and Europe.

There are many voices that raise their doubts and pour scorn about the point or efficacy of the Commonwealth. Niall Ferguson reflects that what went wrong in the Commonwealth from Britain’s point of view wasn’t so much ‘its declining economic importance’, but ‘its growing political impotence’. Andrew Roberts in his mammoth and comprehensive study of the English-speaking people waxes lyrically about their qualities, the richness of the cultures and democracies of the UK, US, Australia and Canada, but finds no room for even a passing mention to the Commonwealth.

Instead the history of the English speaking peoples to Roberts – who ‘have brought down tyrannies across four continents’ – is nearly exclusively about ‘the Special Relationship’ of the UK and US. The Commonwealth with all its baggage and history of Empire just doesn’t cut it compared to that.

There has been in the UK a growing anxiety and unease about the Commonwealth from the immigration debates of the 1960s, but this now seems to have shifted into something more settled: a profound sense of apathy, ignorance and amnesia. The British public seem to know and care less and less about the Commonwealth. In 1969 four in ten respondents thought the Commonwealth was the UK’s most reliable political ally, whereas thirty years later this had fallen to 15%.

Yet, the British retreat from Empire and legacy of Empire still shapes us to this day. The 1948 Nationality Act was the first attempt by British Governments to qualify and dilute the notion of ‘imperial citizenship’, a task completed with the 1981 Nationality Act which finally abolished the term completely.

In the process Britain itself has been changed by the Empire and Commonwealth within, and the changing nature of British society and identity due to immigration from the Old and in particular New Commonwealth. And at the same time British emigration to the Old Commonwealth – and places like Australia and New Zealand – have also had an impact.

And lets not forget that Britain is in many respects still an Empire state. The remnants of Empire still litter the globe; the Crown is Head of State of fourteen territories, which make up the British Overseas Territories. This includes the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and Bermuda, and in all of these every citizen still has what can be seen as the last residual rights of ‘imperial citizenship’ – full UK citizenship and the right to abode in the UK.

The Commonwealth we should remember was invented as an idea before it became a real institution by non-Brits – rather like the fact that ‘North Briton’ was championed by Scots. Lord Rosebery first used the term ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ in 1884 on a trip to Australia, while Jan Christian Smuts, South African Prime Minister, specifically proposed a ‘British Commonwealth’ in 1917.

It took until 1931 for a tangible, real Commonwealth to come into existence, and rather like the term ‘North Briton’, the thinking behind it was the pretence that Britain and its colonies and dominions were of equal status, when in the long distant past, this was a frankly absurd claim.

The Commonwealth today is shaped by the post-imperial world. It is also not the exception, but part of a pattern by which former European colonial powers have tried to come to terms with life after Empire. So alongside the Commonwealth and modelled after it – are the Organisation of Francophone Countries and the Organisation of Ibero-American States, the latter an alliance of former Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

There is a vagueness about what the Commonwealth stands for which could be levelled at the French and Spanish-Portuguese bodies. When the Commonwealth first attempted to define itself in 1971 it committed itself to the principles of world peace, representative democracy, liberty, equality, opposition to racism, and fighting poverty. This list does suspiciously sound like the sort of thing Miss World contestants used to proclaim!

At the same time it has to be noted that this is a popular club, so it must be doing some things right. Mozambique and Rwanda, neither ever British colonies have joined; a host of countries want to join.

South Africa not being allowed to be a member during the height of apartheid from 1961 to 1994 hurt and embarrassed the regime and was perhaps the Commonwealth’s greatest hour.

And yet it cannot be denied that the Commonwealth is a sideshow. The cliché used to be that when Britain joined the EEC in 1973 it abandoned the Commonwealth, but it wasn’t that simple.

Instead, Britain under the influence of Thatcher and Reagan began a new intense, political phase of ‘the Special Relationship’ which culminated with Blair and Bush going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How Britain sees its role in the world – its political elite and public opinion – has less and less to do with the Commonwealth. Instead, it is about how we do not see our politics, economics, diplomacy and culture as being part of a European political project, and imagine ourselves to have an umbilical connection to the ‘English speaking democracies’ and ‘Anglo-sphere’.

Such an outlook took Britain under Blair and Brown to the brink of disaster and disdain, stretching and humiliating our armed forces, and our international reputation.

The Commonwealth is not a force for evil, but nor is it really a true force for good. Instead it is just irrelevant. It is however too much, too insensitive and would involve too much effort for Britain, ‘the mother country’ to leave it – which would it see it slowly wither and die.

Instead, Britain needs to come to terms with being the humble country that we should be according to our size and status, and working out – beyond the Commonwealth – how to make sense of this world, and aid the fight against poverty and for justice. And that isn’t really about the Commonwealth or the games away to open in Delhi.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.

Read Gerry Hassan by visiting his blog: http://www.gerryhassan.com/