The curious case of the disappearing Commonwealth

The flags are up but no-one’s home. Michael Garnett, CC BY-NC-ND

The party manifestos for Britain’s 2015 general election have now been published. And while economists pore over the fiscal plans, I have found myself focusing on the decidedly lukewarm attitude the major parties have shown towards the Commonwealth.

Things have certainly changed since the general election of 1997 – the last time a Labour opposition was challenging the Conservatives for office. In that year, Labour proclaimed the Commonwealth to be “a unique network of contacts linked by history, language and legal systems” and pledged to give renewed priority to it in foreign relations.

Of course, once Labour was in office, this enthusiasm vanished at almost the first sight of the Commonwealth in action. The result was 13 years of rather grudging engagement, particularly during the premiership of Tony Blair.

Nevertheless, the party’s 2010 manifesto still spoke proudly of “the enduring role of the Commonwealth – a unique organisation for fostering understanding and trust, spanning a quarter of the world’s population.”

This time around, though, the Labour manifesto makes only a couple of brief mentions of the Commonwealth. Even then, it is relegated to an item on a list of other organisations and networks to which the UK belongs, such as NATO, the G20 and the EU.

The tactic is clear: name-check the Commonwealth in a paragraph about Britain’s global reach, so as not to be accused of ignoring it, but make no attempt to explain what specific role it would play in a Labour government’s foreign or economic policy.

It’s a useful trick, and one that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have almost precisely duplicated in their 2015 manifestos. The Conservatives, for instance, pledge:

We will use our membership of NATO, the EU, the Commonwealth, our UN Security Council seat, our Special Relationship with the USA, our intelligence agencies, vital institutions like the BBC World Service and British Council, and the strong personal links between our diaspora communities and other countries, to achieve the best for Britain.

To be fair to them, this is the only major party manifesto that gives any hint of what the Commonwealth might actually be for. But the Tories clearly haven’t thought particularly hard about it, either. This passage is largely cut and pasted from their 2010 manifesto.

Back then, the party promised to “strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development”, and now it’s pledging – you’ve guessed it – to “strengthen the Commonwealth’s focus on promoting democratic values and development.”

Back to the White Dominions?

The Conservatives also offer perhaps the most arresting reference to the Commonwealth in any of the party manifestos. The party promises to “uphold our Special Relationship with the USA and further strengthen our ties with our close Commonwealth allies, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.”

This is more than a little reminiscent of the rhetoric of the inter-war period when the Commonwealth was synonymous with the “White Dominions” – territories of European settlement which supposedly felt a particular affinity towards the “Mother Country”.

To some extent the statement reflects existing policy. In 2012, for example, plans were announced for the UK and Canada to share some of their diplomatic missions around the world.

The passage may also owe something to a proposal raised in 2013 by the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, for Britain to establish a “bilateral mobility zone” with Australia and New Zealand, to make it easier for their citizens to live and work in the UK. This was endorsed the following year by a report from the right-of-centre think tank Commonwealth Exchange, which suggested adding Canada to the group.

But it is difficult not to detect a certain nostalgia for a time when the Commonwealth was idealised as a tight-knit grouping of “kith and kin”.

The good old days

The Green party manifesto simply ignores the Commonwealth, as does the SNP, which was notably peeved ahead of the referendum last year to be told that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for membership of the organisation.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, UKIP predictably references it far more liberally than any of the other parties – often as a tool to refute the claim that Britain is too small to survive outside the EU.

Sweet nostalgia. Gareth Fuller/PA

Its manifesto complains about the “blatant discrimination against Commonwealth countries” when it comes to immigration and promises to establish a Migration Control Commission charged with devising a system of “reciprocal arrangements” for countries that already have close links to the UK, including Commonwealth members.

Whereas the Conservatives give us the White Dominions, UKIP talks of the “Anglosphere”, from India to New Zealand, to the Caribbean.

Again, we might sense a certain desire to side-step the reality of the contemporary Commonwealth, with its 53 very disparate nations, and revive the antiquated notion of the “English Speaking Peoples” – one with which UKIP’s core voters would no doubt feel more comfortable.

Better left unsaid

The marginalisation of the Commonwealth in this election should certainly come as no surprise. British governments tend to enter office promising to take the Commonwealth more seriously and to exploit its supposedly vast “potential”, only to find that the task is more difficult than they imagined. The coalition government placed similarly high hopes in the organisation but then had to deal with a particularly dismal phase in its history.

Rajapaksa as chairman. EPA/M.A.Pushpa Kumara

Lacking both focus and imaginative leadership, the Commonwealth was effectively hijacked by the corrupt and oppressive Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. To the Commonwealth’s eternal shame, Rajapaksa was its formal chairman for more than a year before being ousted in his country’s January 2015 elections.

All in all, it is difficult to think of a single major achievement of the Commonwealth since 2010. Hardly surprising, then, that Britain’s political parties are still not prepared to set themselves up for a fall by genuinely investing in it.

But it’s also striking how a nostalgic conception of the “old” Commonwealth still has a hold on the British imagination, and the right wing of politics in particular. To the extent that it does, we are still some way from genuine and reflective engagement with this particular legacy of our imperial past.