If they achieve nothing else during their London summit this week, the 53 Commonwealth heads of government have made one old man very happy: the Prince of Wales (who turns 70 in November). Though he hasn’t shown remotely the same commitment to this odd and unique association as his mother, he has, apparently, been anointed as its next head. We know this because the Queen said as much in her opening address. She will have done so, proper as ever, because the consensus has emerged among Commonwealth leaders that it should be so.
If the Commonwealth mattered more to them than it does, then some might have made more of a fuss, but as it is mostly regarded as a rather pleasant excuse to network, and doesn’t require anyone to go to war or relax trade barriers then whoever is its titular head isn’t such a big deal.
The Queen may, in fact, be even more relieved than her son and daughter-in-law at the reassurance this has given to her about the future of her beloved Commonwealth. Camilla, if the rumours are anything to go by, could do without the hassle of all the travel to hot places.
Thus, the mischievous suggestion by a leading politician in one Commonwealth state, Jeremy Corbyn, that the post might be revolved around its members, has been rejected. When the time comes for his coronation, Charles will be proclaimed “Head of the Commonwealth”. For what it’s worth.
In fact, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has helped make some other older people happy too. Were it not for the coincidental attendance in London of the premiers of Caribbean nations and territories, and were it not for the fact that the Queen is also Queen of Barbados, of Jamaica, of St Lucia, of Anguilla and of various other realms and possessions in the region, the astonishingly careless betrayal of the Windrush generation by the British government might not have been resolved quite so briskly.
The Commonwealth has once again done some quiet good, pushing Theresa May to meet her counterparts from the Caribbean territories after she had, rudely and indefensibly, initially refused to meet them.
Generally, the Commonwealth is a force for good, and there are few enough of those in the world. Despite its origins in the murder and pillage of empire, with massacres and famines perpetrated on its peoples by greedy or idiotic colonialists, it is one of the few global organisations that places, or tries to place, human rights at its heart, and is prepared to suspend or expel members who fall short of its ideals (ironically enough embodied in the Harare Declaration). The United Nations performs a far different function, and is far more hypocritical. It, after all, allows dictators to become goodwill ambassadors and the envoys sent by despots to New York to head up committees on human rights.
The Commonwealth, for all its faults, hasn’t often fallen into such traps. Indeed for much of its middle history, from the 1960s to the 1990s, it was actively engaged in ending white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), as well as cajoling the likes of Pakistan and Fiji to behave themselves. It may not have been the most important factor in the end of apartheid, but isolating South Africa in particular from its traditional sporting and cultural links sent an important message, as did limited and symbolic economic sanctions.
Today, the Commonwealth lacks any such comparable geopolitical projects to occupy it, and the days of Margaret Thatcher bickering with Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Indira Gandhi about apartheid are long distant. Yet it has potential, as the Queen mentioned, to continue its informal work in bringing peoples together and, a new agenda, to improve trading and economic links and cooperation in an era of creeping protectionism. No one is seriously suggesting a return to Commonwealth-wide trade and tariff preferences, still less the grand Imperial Preference dream of Joseph Chamberlain, designed to transform the Victorian British Empire into an economic bloc to rival the United States and Germany. But the Commonwealth of today numbers among its membership some of the world’s largest, most vibrant, dynamic and fasts moving economies, and ones full of potential, such as India, Nigeria, Singapore, Australia and South Africa.
To put things rather crudely, the British need the Commonwealth for more than sentimental reasons, as way of ameliorating Brexit. The British all too eagerly abandoned their then slow-growing Commonwealth markets to join the dynamic European Economic Community in 1973. Today, it can be argued, it is Europe that has become a more mature and slower growing bloc, and the populous Commonwealth countries of Africa and Asia that are the new dynamic engines of global growth.
Still, the British should be wary of trying to sail away on a dream of Empire 2.0. Even taken together, the Commonwealth nations represent smaller markets for British exports than the EU. This is partly a matter of recent history, and the atrophying historic bonds loosened half a century ago, but also of simple proximity and the fact that Europe, for all its sclerosis, remains a prosperous and vast single market. It is, as we now know, much more than a customs union or free trade zone.
Every Commonwealth nation is an independent state, and, rightly, follows its own national interests. The fact that India is in the Commonwealth, and has long enjoyed cultural, political, sporting and family links with the UK, does not mean it will open up its financial and retail sectors to UK firms, and just forget about its frustrations at the British attitude to allowing Indian people to come and study and work in the UK. Australia is no more inclined to ditch its demands that the British accept its hormonally boosted beef, just because Kylie is going to sing at the Queen’s 92nd birthday party on Saturday. The British will need to give as well as take, in this new, more equal set of relationships.
After all, on some measures India will overtake the British economy in size this year or next. If the Commonwealth is going to transform itself into some sort of multiracial Anglophone sphere it will be more because of the size and influence of America and the emergence of India rather than because the UK is searching for a new role.
The truth about the UK is that, before Brexit, it found itself at the centre of a happy Euler diagram of alliances – the European Union, the Commonwealth, Nato and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That helped Britain, in that phrase beloved of its diplomats, to “punch above its weight”, and be a world player. Being a member of the EU was never, and is not now, an impediment to exporting to Commonwealth friends, old and new (or anyone else).
The EU cannot be used as an alibi for the UK's failure to maintain its Commonwealth markets, and, the perspective the statistics lend to the current debate is a depressing one. Germany and Belgium are both bigger trading partners for India than the UK, for example, a once unthinkable notion. South Korea is far more important to New Zealand than is Britain. Even much maligned Italy trades twice as much with Ghana than does the old colonial power. The British need to get real: It will need a great deal more than games of cricket, tea with Charles and Camilla and the persuasive skills of Liam Fox to turn the heads of the Commonwealth’s emerging powers.