The Rhetorical Resurrection of the Commonwealth

Oliver Hirst

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), November 2011

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), November 2011. Photo Source: Annaleise McDonough via Flickr Creative Commons.

Born from a postcolonial climate in which Britain sought to maintain influence in its former territories, the ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ is, for some, a continued legacy of imperialism. Yet, for an increasing number of politicians, the Commonwealth now represents the UK’s global future rather than its troubled colonial past. As an intergovernmental organisation it comprises 53 member states across all six inhabited continents, ranging from the traditional ‘Anglosphere’ of Canada, Australia and New Zealand to the emerging economies of nations like India and Nigeria. United by a shared language, history, and (in theory) by the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, the Commonwealth is one of the UK’s most important diplomatic, trade, and cultural networks.

Since its reinvention from an Anglocentric group of former colonies into a network of relative equals in the 1950s and 1960s, the Commonwealth’s most visible manifestation has been its ‘cultural diplomacy,’ not least in the Commonwealth Games held every four years. However, the extent of recent political focus on the Commonwealth, particularly by UKIP and Conservative eurosceptics, is a marked shift. Many now see the network of English-speaking countries as representing the future of the UK’s cultural, economic, and demographic links if a British exit from the European Union were to occur. UKIP has appointed one of its MEPs as a designated ‘Commonwealth Spokesman,’ and the party’s Deputy Leader has declared the Commonwealth the only ‘club’ with the potential to rival the US and China in terms of trade. Conservatives have also looked beyond the shores of Europe, with Boris Johnson expressing support for welcoming more migrants from Commonwealth countries. What is the meaning of this renewed focus on the Commonwealth, shifting from our geographically and politically closer networks within Europe?

By reinvigorating an older ‘community’ of nations as the UK looks at the potential for leaving the European community in the upcoming referendum, British eurosceptics are seeking to develop a new model for the country’s relationship with the wider world. Primarily, this can be seen as motivated by the desire to form new economic bonds to rival those of the European Single Market. UKIP’s Commonwealth spokesman, for instance, has argued that it is essential for the UK to look towards a future free from the ‘economically sclerotic’ EU, a future that can be found in strengthening trade ties with the dynamic economies of Commonwealth members such as India and Nigeria. While the Commonwealth does not have a common market, research by the Royal Commonwealth Society has shown that trade with another Commonwealth member is up to 50 per cent more than with a non-member on average. Some British politicians have subsequently proposed developing these links into a Commonwealth free trade zone, with some explicitly suggesting it as an alternative to membership of the EU. Yet this idea of the Commonwealth as a new economic union is, for now, more rhetoric than reality. The UK’s position in many of these extra-European markets is far from ‘special;’ even in India, recent trade has seen the Germans and Dutch play a more significant role than the UK, whose exports and imports to the country are significantly lower. Furthermore, major economic uncertainty in the economies of Commonwealth nations – in Nigeria, for example, caused by the fall in the price of oil – has acted as a potent reminder that the grass may not be any greener, even in those states revered by eurosceptics as future trade partners.

Immigration is another area where the Commonwealth is promoted as an effective alternative. Right-wing commentators look back to the idyllic days before the ‘eastern European surge,’ when most of the immigration into the UK came from the Commonwealth. This distinction is even reflected in language; while eurosceptics denounce the perceived influx of unskilled ‘immigrants’ from Eastern Europe, they look to embrace the skilled ‘migrants’ of Canada and Australia, not strangers but ‘our own kith and kin.’ In this context, renewed attention to the Commonwealth community can be interpreted as an attempt to construct a non-racial but equally discriminating category for potential migrants to the UK, with ‘Commonwealth’ being a convenient shorthand for a particular type of English-speaking, educated migrant. Yet many have expressed doubts that the solution to high immigration is to more closely integrate with a network of countries with a population totalling 2.3 billion (in comparison to the EU’s 500,000), particularly as research has shown that it is non-European, rather than European, migration which is more characterised by a low fiscal contribution and lack of integration into the UK.

More fundamentally, discussions are corrupted by a selective and nostalgic view of the Commonwealth relationship; it is suggested that all member states share a ‘common history forged by war and peace’ over the past 200 years, omitting the fact that this history primarily involved the often oppressive extension of British imperialism. In addition, the ‘common values’ that are the supposed legacy of this common history are a matter for debate. Rwanda, the latest member of the Commonwealth, has a political system marked by high levels of repression and sporadic crackdowns on free speech, as well as a legal system based on Germanic rather than English law. It is questionable that the UK has any more in common with such countries than with its closer neighbours across the Channel. While it is true that the Commonwealth has played a significant role in pressuring undemocratic regimes to reform – such as isolating Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s and more recently suspending the memberships of Zimbabwe and Fiji due to poor human rights records – a recent Foreign Office report emphasises the ‘ineffectiveness of the mechanisms’ used to uphold the Commonwealth’s values.

Perhaps most damaging in the renewed rhetoric of the Commonwealth is the assertion that these global networks must be exclusive. UKIP has claimed that the UK’s membership of the EU has become ‘incompatible’ if the country is to enjoy the ‘full benefits’ of a more proactive involvement in the Commonwealth of the twenty-first century. But, in contrast, the UK’s global role has often relied on a combination of its many international connections: in the EU, in the Commonwealth, even in our ‘special relationship’ with the US. The Commonwealth of Nations has been, and will continue to be, a highly important organisation whose cultural, political, and increasingly economic, connections should be strengthened. But it cannot be used as an abstract alternative to the much more significant ties of the European Union.

In its current form, the cultural community of the Commonwealth is not a viable replacement for the geopolitical and economic community of the EU. In the global climate of the twenty-first century, it would be foolhardy to idealise or abandon any one international network. As the Labour politician James Maxton famously declared, if you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the circus.

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