Why Brexit can’t transform Commonwealth trade

Flagbearers at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia. EPA-EFE/EPA

With the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast, public attention has turned to the oft-neglected Commonwealth of Nations. The 2018 games dovetail with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London on April 16-20, the first since the UK voted to leave the EU. Tales of sporting prowess have competed with speculation about the possibilities the Commonwealth may provide for a post-Brexit Britain.

Among hard Brexiters, re-engaging with the Commonwealth offers one of the more seductive “opportunities of Brexit”. Despite cautious neutrality prior to the referendum, and an initial response focused on mitigating risks, the Commonwealth secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, has pledged to “turbocharge the Commonwealth trade advantage”.

But a closer look suggests that Brexit cannot create a new economic role for the Commonwealth.

What’s become of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth today comprises 53 countries accounting for about 15% of world trade and about 30% of the world’s population. But other than the Queen’s symbolic role as head, what makes the Commonwealth more than a statistical and geographical agglomeration?

It is not simply a successor to empire, or a repository for imperial nostalgia. Its form reflects assertions of autonomy, equality and independence by successive generations of Canadian, Afrikaner, Irish, Indian, and African nationalists, and the UK’s equally jealous guardianship of its own sovereignty. As Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith told the 1911 Imperial Conference, “we each of us are, and we each of us intend to remain, master in our own household”.