Observations of an ex pat: The Commonwealth

Ten years ago a Commonwealth-wide poll revealed that support for the political descendant of the British Empire was highest among the developing countries.

Not surprising, they had the most to gain from aid and trade. Support from the developed Commonwealth countries was half of that of the developing world. Britain was at the bottom.

That is changing. Brexiteers have conveniently rediscovered their imperial roots and are now pushing for a revival of the Commonwealth as a replacement for lost European markets. It is, after all, the home for a third of the world’s population and a total GDP of $17 trillion. This may seem like a lot until you compared it to the $60 trillion GDP of the EU.

Nevertheless, the British government gas rolled outLondon’s red carpet for this week’s biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—usually referred to by the inelegant acronym CHOGM.

But the Brexiteers will find that the former colonies may be reluctant to jump back onto the British wagon.   They have long memories. Many still lodge bitter resentment  at being left in the lurch when Britain was lured away by the siren call of Brussels.

All of the countries have adjusted to a life without Commonwealth trade preferences. Canada has increased its business with the United States. Australia and New Zealand are now focused on China, Japan and other Asian countries. Singapore has become a Far Eastern entrepot. The developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific have gained access to EU aid and trade.

As one Commonwealth head of government told me: “When the British want us we are expected to jump. When we want them they are too busy to bother.”

Trade will not be the only issue on the table. Climate change, Syria, plastic pollution, cyber security and the election of a new titular head are all on the agenda.

The small island countries are particularly concerned about climate change. Rising Pacific sea levels are polluting fresh water supplies and even submerging entire communities under the waves. In the Caribbean, increasingly extreme weather conditions spawn hurricanes  year after year.

Syria is topical. The heads of government cannot avoid discussing the civil war, Russian involvement, and the recent US-led attack following the repeated use of chemical weapons.  There will be a condemnation of Bashar al-Assad in the communique.

And with Syria comes the threat of cyber attack. Both the FBI and Britain’s electronic spy agency GCHQ Cheltenham have warned that Russia has been positioning itself for such an attack on the UK—possibly in retaliation for Syria. Through the UK runs a vast network of telecommunications for the Commonwealth and many other countries.

The future used to be plastics. Now the material is damned environmentalists. It degrades slowly and as it does it releases dangerous chemicals consumed by animals, marine life, birds and eventually—humans. It takes 50 years for a plastic cup to decompose; 450 years for a disposable nappy and 600 years for a fishing line.

Finally, there is the titular job of Head of Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth has held the job for 75 years. She is now 91. She is tired and her travelling days are over. At the opening ceremony at Buckingham Palace the Queen made a personal plea to the 53 countries to elect her son Prince Charles to fill her shoes.

Her Majesty would not have made a public appeal unless her advisers had told that the Charles’s succession was in the bag. To do so without that fore knowledge would have been a total humiliation for the monarchy and Britain. So it is virtually certain that the link between the British monarchy and the Commonwealth will continue.

Whether or not trade and political links will grow is another matter. But the Commonwealth will remain an organisation based on a common past, the rule of law, human rights, belief in the importance of free trade and democratic values. It is also a forum for the exchange of ideas and ideas are the foundation for everything that follows.

* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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11 Comments

  • Be interesting to see if Charles Windsor’s latest gaffe to the lady from Manchester will resonate.

  • Tony Greaves 20th Apr '18 - 11:51am

    That was the sort of joke that people used to make and get away with 50 years ago. Says a lot about the man. By the way the Queen has been head of the Commonwealth for 65 years, not 75.

  • Nevertheless, 75 is still a good number young Tony. I’m quite attached to it.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Apr '18 - 12:38pm

    Yes, there’s many a slip between bag and lip but thank you for this post Tom. After the initial depression of the Brexit result I remember thinking “Thank God the Queen has worked so hard to keep the Commonwealth together”. Unfortunately she seems to be solely responsible for this because politicians don’t seem to have had the same commitment. Teresa May adopts a patronising attitude shown by her initial refusal to meet Heads of State concerned about the Windrush affair as well as her smarmy speech yesterday.
    I have been very impressed by the statesman like responses given by Caribbean leaders. Maybe Brexit will have a favourable impact on Commonwealth countries if it goes ahead which will be some good coming out of a terrible mess.

  • William Fowler 21st Apr '18 - 7:46am

    Be interesting to see where this goes, the one big legacy is English as a common language rather than that the Continental babble we are supposed to work our way through (and the expensive bureaucratic mess that results), what a huge missed opportunity back in the seventies! See Mrs May is throwing aid money around like there is no tomorrow, rather like the ugly girl at school who can only get friends by buying them sweets (same as with EU).

  • The alternative to Prince Charles was who? Whatever his joke was (I can’t be bothered to look it up), he’s a more unifying option than some here-today career politician pushing for their personal/their country’s own interests.
    Only other option would have been a rolling presidency, each nation getting a go. But with 53 members, I don’t think would be very practical.

  • Mr Fowler. If I told you that the foreign aid budget was based on a private members bill introduced in 2014 by the Liberal Democrat MP Michael Moore would it encourage you to return to the Tory spiritual home you left less than 12 months ago?

  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '18 - 3:46pm

    William Fowler 21st Apr ’18 – 7:46am: The UK government is spending large amounts of money on Internally Displaced Persons and on people who would be likely to qualify for refugee status if they were able to apply to a safe country which has signed the 1953 Convention. It is surprising that Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are willing to act as hosts in this way. We do not know how long the war in Syria will last, or what those three countries will be like when the war ends and displaced people start trying to return to their homes, or at least to their home country.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '18 - 3:50pm

    The admission of countries such as Mozambique and Rwanda is changing the Commonwealth.
    Should it change its name?
    What would the Lord Protector have thought?

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