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The case for
Is it just an imperial hangover?
What exactly is the Commonwealth? A rather vague post-empire club of 54 countries, encompassing a quarter of the world’s landmass and almost a third of its population. Members range in size from the tiddly Pacific island of Nauru, population 11,000, to 1.4 billion-strong India. Most are former British colonies, so they speak English, use English common law and generally drive on the left. Every four years they get together for the Commonwealth Games – a slimmed-down Olympics with classic English sports such as lawn bowls and cricket thrown in.
How did the Commonwealth begin? In the 1860s Britain’s “white” colonies – Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – began agitating for self-government, which they won in bits and bobs, gradually becoming “dominions” within the empire. After sending more than a million troops to fight in World War One, the dominions wanted more independence – and they got it. The 1926 Balfour Declaration enshrined their status as Britain’s equals, “united by a common allegiance to the Crown”. Five years later the British Commonwealth of Nations was officially founded, and it welcomed Britain’s other colonies one by one as they gained independence after World War Two.
Did they all stick with the British monarch? No. The most bruising departure was India, which became a republic after winning independence in 1947. Determined to keep it within its sphere of influence, the Commonwealth quietly dropped “allegiance to the crown” as an entrance requirement in 1949. The British sovereign would instead be a symbol of the “free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth”, prompting George VI to remark: “I’ve become ‘as such’.” Just 15 members retain the Queen as head of state – Barbados became a republic only last week.
Why stay in the Commonwealth at all? Critics dismiss it as “empire 2.0”, a nefarious way for the old master to keep the whip hand decades after decolonisation. Barbados “should finish what they have begun” and leave, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the I newspaper. But really, says author Ben Judah on Twitter, small countries stick around for the company. They’re far more likely to get quality time with big players like Britain and India at a Commonwealth bash than they ever would at a packed UN summit. Mozambique and Rwanda liked the look of it so much that they signed up in 1995 and 2009 respectively, despite having no historic ties to the British empire.
Can it replace the EU post-Brexit? No, says The Economist. That’s an “amiable delusion”, but not a goer. Britain has traded more with the Continent than it has with the Commonwealth for decades. The EU accounted for more than half of UK trade in 2019, while the Commonwealth made up less than 10% – about as much as our trade with Germany. In fact, Germany exports three times more to India than we do. An Australian diplomat tells The Economist the Commonwealth has precisely “no capacity on trade”.
Is that true? The Commonwealth isn’t an economic bloc, but trade within it is 19% cheaper, thanks to overlapping laws and regulations, as well as the common language. And it has enormous promise, says Ibrahim Khan in Foreign Policy. More than 60% of its citizens are under 30 and, over the past four decades, Commonwealth economies have grown at an average annual rate of more than 4%, compared with the EU’s 2%. Nigeria in particular is predicted to explode: it has a vibrant tech scene and will have a bigger population than the whole of Europe by 2080. Some estimates see India’s economy overtaking that of the US within 30 years. Remade as a trade bloc, the Commonwealth would be formidable.
Could that happen? Unlikely. China has been quietly grooming neglected Commonwealth members for decades. Barbados’s republican turn might have something to do with the £500m of investment it has raked in from Beijing. Good luck with that, says Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times: within a few years everything that makes Barbados Barbados will be crushed under “waving golden cats… hideous casinos and yet another shop selling fake Burberry hats”. The real threat to the Commonwealth is China’s determination to lure poor countries into debt traps. Sri Lanka was forced to hand over a port to the Chinese in 2017 because it couldn’t repay the money it had borrowed from Beijing for its construction.
How did they fall for that one? It happens all the time, mostly because developing nations can’t afford to say no. Since 2005 China has shovelled £685bn into Commonwealth countries, far more than it invests in non-members. This brings results: nine Commonwealth members backed China’s draconian Hong Kong National Security Law at the UN. The £1.5bn a year Britain invests in Commonwealth nations looks paltry by comparison (although Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is trying to up that to £8bn). As Ugandan MP Biyika Lawrence Songa put it in The Daily Telegraph: “Where is that wealth that is common to us?”
What about the Commonwealth’s politics? Members are officially committed to high-minded ideals such as democracy and gender equality. The reality is often different: homosexuality is still illegal in 36 member states. At the last Commonwealth summit in 2018, Britain steeled itself to raise the issue, but caved in at the last minute. Human rights abuses by members are routinely ignored: from The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, threatening to behead homosexuals in 2008, to the Sri Lankan government’s wanton shelling of its people in 2009, at the end of its civil war.
Are there any prouder moments in its history? Absolutely. In heartening contrast to its origins as a “whites only” offshoot of the British empire, the Commonwealth took a strong stand against apartheid in South Africa, which left over the issue in 1961. While Nelson Mandela was in prison, Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal asked the ANC’s president Oliver Tambo if a post-apartheid South Africa would want to be in the Commonwealth. “Black South Africa never left the Commonwealth,” he said. In 1994 the newly christened Rainbow Nation was duly welcomed back with open arms.
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