Why the Commonwealth endures despite being written off by the left and the right

Leaders at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013. Malta will host the next one in November 2015. Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The South African city Durban has made history by being named the first in Africa to host the Commonwealth Games since they started 85 years ago.

The port city’s decision to bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games has sparked controversy. Supporters say the games will boost tourism and create jobs. Detractors question their affordability, citing grinding poverty and acute shortages of basic necessities such as housing.

This article seeks to explain the Commonwealth of Nations as an organisation and its enduring power. The Commonwealth is an example of a concept that ought to be politically fraught. The (English) language-based association comprises a former imperialist power plus its dismantled empire of former colonies, protectorates, and mandates.

But far from the 53-member Commonwealth unravelling, it has inspired three imitators – and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. These are: the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Commonwealth history

The British Empire began evolving into the Commonwealth between the two world wars. Sovereign independence was granted to what white supremacists termed the “white dominions” – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. These governments all shared close political, diplomatic, and military alliances, and enjoyed, by the standards of the day, similar economically developed status.

Today’s Commonwealth covers a spectrum of Western and non-aligned governments, developed and developing economies, democracies and authoritarian regimes. They differ remarkably in other respects too:

  • They almost never vote the same way at the United Nations;

  • They diverge on most diplomatic issues;

  • They have a plethora of official languages (more than 16 in India alone);

  • Their dominant religions range from Christianity and Islam to Hinduism and Buddhism; and

  • They are members of separate economic blocs and unions.

Yet none of the current Commonwealth members wish to leave. Temporary suspension of membership, as with Fiji, Nigeria and Pakistan, serves as public naming and shaming for errant behaviour.

Not all former British colonies want to join the Commonwealth. The US does not. Ireland does not. Not one of Britain’s former Arab colonies, protectorates, and mandates ever joined, nor Israel, nor Myanmar. By contrast, Algeria, with its bloody seven-year war of liberation, was the only former French colony not to join the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.

Mauritius and the Seychelles enjoy membership of both the Commonwealth and the Francophonie, reflecting their histories as having been colonies of both empires.

Only Zimbabwe’s authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe and the dictator of The Gambia have chosen to resign from the Commonwealth. But Mozambique and Rwanda, never ruled by Britain, both applied for and were accepted as members. Rwanda followed this up by introducing cricket in its schools and encouraging the use of English.

Ironically, the Commonwealth enjoys lowest support among the British public, and highest support among its third-world member publics.

British international soft power

Clearly, the Commonwealth gives Britain the international soft power of language and culture. In the long term this soft power might become less Anglo and more Anglophone since India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria each have larger populations than the UK.

This becomes clear as we look at the Commonwealth family. The Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) attract less publicity than the Commonwealth Games or the Man Brooker Prize for literature. While football has spread to the whole globe, cricket and rugby remain based within Commonwealth countries.

This is not to downplay the importance of the episodic CHOGM. In addition to the formal multilateral conference, occasions where more than 50 heads of government are in the same town are eagerly used for bilateral and trilateral negotiations.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, and the Association of Commonwealth Universities are among the most prominent of over 100 Commonwealth non-governmental organisations.

Economically, Commonwealth countries are divided between those who are members of the European Union (EU), the Caribbean Community (Caricom), Economic Community of West African States ECOWAS, Southern African Development Community and the East African Community, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. But trade between Commonwealth countries tends to be higher than with other states. The Commonwealth Business Council is a corporate sector entity that encourages this.

From time to time, a diversity of commentators and activists denigrate the Commonwealth. These range from right-wing old-school imperialists to leftist critics denouncing Western hegemony. Liberals periodically deplore the Commonwealth’s failure to denounce human rights abusers or, usually, to expel dictators. One pernicious heritage of the British Empire includes anti-homosexual laws in 41 Commonwealth countries, quite different from the heritage of the French empire.

Looking to the future

But such episodic outbursts swiftly fade away, while the trickle of third-world countries wishing to join the Commonwealth continues. Clearly, the Commonwealth is for most of its members a soft, not a primary identity. After all, Commonwealth members such as India and Pakistan have fought three wars with each other.

But the 21st century is an era of multiple identities. Cameroon, Mauritius and the Seychelles are examples of countries happy to enjoy both Commonwealth and Francophonie memberships. Pan-Africanism and the African Union also form strong bonds between states who are also Commonwealth members. Mozambique is a member of both the Commonwealth and the Comunidade.

So the Commonwealth comprises some valued strands in the warp and weft of 53 nations’ contemporary fabric of being. It has passed the test of time, as have also the Francophonie and Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa. It is more likely to gain one or two more countries in future than to lose members. And under future rulers it is probable that The Gambia and Zimbabwe will return.

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