ANDREW ADONIS questions if the Commonwealth is a fit vehicle to promote modern-day Britain.
Harry, the artist formerly known as prince, rather appropriately chose Commonwealth Day for his last public engagement this week, celebrating an institution formerly known as the British empire.
I used to think that the Commonwealth was pointless but harmless. I now think it nostalgic and dangerous. It is a fantasy for Britain to think that a club of former colonies, tied to Britain by little more than sentimentality, is an alternative to engagement in our own European continent. And it is positively dangerous for key Commonwealth states themselves, notably India, who use it as a cloak for tyranny.
For the biggest Commonwealth event of recent days wasn’t the pageant led by the House of Windsor in Westminster Abbey. It was the rioting which has targeted Muslims on the streets of Delhi, without one word of protest from the Commonwealth.
Lest you think India out on a limb, note that homosexuality is still illegal in 34 of the 54 members of the Commonwealth. What is the organisation doing to overcome this? Zilch.
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Back in 1949, when the Commonwealth was founded, it meant something because the empire had not ended. On the contrary, the new organisation was a ploy by Attlee and Bevin, leading the post-war Labour government, to create a viable post-war structure for trade, politics and citizenship embracing a large number of continuing colonies, the ‘white’ dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and newly-independent republics, notably India, which still had extensive British ties. They roped in the monarchy to give it glitz, making King George VI ‘Head of the Commonwealth’, in which role he was succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth three years later, who came to the throne while on a Commonwealth tour of Africa.
The 1950s ended all that. The Suez crisis of 1956 destroyed imperial power. Soon after, the remaining colonies mostly became independent. India’s decision to become ‘non-aligned’ between the west and the Soviet Union destroyed the unity of the self-governing territories, while apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe gave the lie to the idea that there was any level of human rights violation and depravity which the Commonwealth was capable of halting.
It was the same economically. In the immediate post-war decades British trade with the Commonwealth halved as a share of all trade, then halved again after we joined the EU. Today, our trade with the entirety of the Commonwealth is approximately the same as our trade with Germany alone.
Shared citizenship has now long been a thing of the past. That went in the 1960s, when successive Commonwealth Immigrants Acts forbade Commonwealth citizens from entering the UK without visas and work permits. I haven’t noticed Boris Johnson and the Brexiters offering to reverse these laws as they end free movement of citizens within the EU.
The Queen is now essentially head of an institution with nothing underneath. Where the Commonwealth does score is in sheer waffle.
The great authority on this is no less than the director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, Philip Murphy, in a book entitled The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth.
‘If the measure of an institution’s worth were its ability to generate a blizzard of laudable hashtags, the Commonwealth would be an unparalleled success,’ writes Murphy. ‘Let’s hear it for #peace, #technicalassistance, #youth, #humanrights, #education, #trade, #genderequality, #smallstates. What’s not to like? Yet one does not have to spend very long observing the organisation at close quarters before a nagging question begins to form in the back of one’s mind. Eventually, out of bemusement, frustration or simple curiosity, one finds oneself enquiring, ‘So what has the Commonwealth actually achieved?’ Like the little boy who asks in all innocence why the emperor has no clothes, one is likely to encounter an embarrassed, even shocked silence.’
Better to call a void a void. End the pretence that the Commonwealth is a fit vehicle to promote modern Britain politically and economically. But because a party and sport competitions are always a good idea, keep the Commonwealth Games.
The former prince can even make a return every four years to open them.