Britain sees the Commonwealth as its trading empire

Early April 2018. In Brisbane, a cheeky radio interviewer asks Prince Charles if he really does carry a personal lavatory seat on his travels, and the prince replies, “Oh, don’t believe all that crap.” Elsewhere in the Queensland capital, India win gold in the women’s weightlifting and lose to Cameroon in the men’s basketball. At Buckingham Palace, a menu is drawn up for a banquet to be attended later this month by 53 heads of state or their representatives. In Whitehall, the Department for International Trade ponders the effects on British farming of hormone-treated beef imports from Australia , which is a probable consequence of the UK’s first post-Brexit trade deal. In one way or another, the Commonwealth is responsible for all these things: for the Commonwealth Games, which demand the presence of the heir to the throne in Australia; for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm), the 25th such conclave since 1971, which occurs in London (and Windsor Castle) on April 16-20; and, simply by its dogged and unlikely persistence as an international grouping, for permitting the British delusion that old imperial patterns of trade can replace the present arrangements with the EU. (Enter the hormone-treated beef.)
Not that the Commonwealth itself encouraged this idea: nearly every Commonwealth republic and “realm” wanted the UK to remain inside the EU. And not that Europhobes have always prized the Commonwealth. As our present foreign secretary wrote in 2002 , “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.” The Commonwealth that some Brexit campaigners had in mind was perhaps a little whiter – taking the definition of Commonwealth all the way back to the time when it meant the British empire’s settler dominions : Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland and South Africa, which were sovereign states, not colonies, and bound only by their loyalty to the crown.
Indian independence forced Britain to be more flexible about who could be included. As India would be a republic, loyal oaths were out of the question. But Britain was keen to maintain some form of the old connection “in the mistaken belief”, according to the Commonwealth historian Philip Murphy, “that India’s huge standing army would continue to underwrite British great-power status”. There were other reasons too. Historic sentiment, fear of American ambition, the need to protect British markets: together they led Britain to propose a compromise. All that would be required was that India recognise the king as the head of the Commonwealth, “as the symbol of the free association of its independent member states”, rather than pledging loyalty to him. Even so, the offer still flew in the face of the complete withdrawal that had been promised by leaders of the independence movement. But India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, finally went along with it – realising, he said, that Commonwealth membership meant “independence plus, not independence minus”.
Other countries felt the same. In his forthcoming book, The Empire’s New Clothes: the Myth of the Commonwealth, Murphy argues that Britain didn’t mastermind the growth of the modern Commonwealth as part of a grand geopolitical strategy. Newly independent colonies wanted to belong, not least because their anticolonial leaders still felt a strong sense of cultural attachment to Britain and the British institutions – universities mainly – that had brought them into contact with contemporaries from other parts of the world.
Any thought that the Commonwealth could successfully perpetuate the empire vanished with the Suez humiliation in 1956, when Nehru and India sided with Jamal Abdul Nasser and Egypt over the Anglo-French assault. The ties to London began to weaken. Names changed to reflect different realities. Founded in 1930, the British Empire Games became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954, the British Commonwealth Games in 1970, and finally the Commonwealth Games in 1978. On paper, the facts remain compelling. The countries of the Commonwealth spread across a fifth of the world’s land surface, contain nearly a third of the world’s population and produce around 15 per cent of the world’s wealth (depending on the measure used).

Source : Guardian News


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