Beneath the diplomacy and ceremony of CHOGM, James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News, says there will be some deep questions being asked about the role of the Commonwealth in the twenty-first century
let me assert an uncomfortable truth. If one walked down any high street in Britain and asked passers-by about the Commonwealth, I suspect one would be met by a fair few blank looks. Some might mention the Commonwealth Games, others the Queen or the Empire.
The greatest interest, perhaps, might come from those with family or other personal connections with other Commonwealth countries. But even those with a keen awareness of the international organisation might shrug their shoulders when asked to explain what relevance it had
to their daily lives. And I would not be surprised if this attitude were echoed by others across the Commonwealth.
Yet this organisation includes 53 countries encompassing 2.4 billion people. It forms layer upon layer of intermingling networks of professional, sporting, business and cultural groups. It provides a forum for cooperation between nations, a bastion – at least in theory – of the democratic, rules-based international order, with the English language and legal system forming a core denominator for many countries. And it is an organisation that the Queen values highly and has fought to protect during her long reign.
So why is an organisation that has so much potential so much in the shade? One reason, perhaps, is that it has always been in search of a role. This is a Commonwealth of nations that was united at first by nothing more than a past membership of the British empire. Shared experience is one thing but it is rarely a foundation for future cooperation, particularly when that shared experience was distant and not mutual to all.
The Commonwealth has also always been divided between the white, Anglo-Saxon nations – the ABCs as they are known after Australia, Britain and Canada – and the African members, and the many Small Island countries. And these divisions have at times been deep, not just between wealth and geography but also between culture and values. Let us not forget that 36 of 53 Commonwealth countries retain legislation that criminalises homosexuality.
So this is a familiar problem that the Commonwealth faces as it prepares to gather for its biennial meeting of heads of government in London. It will be quite a jamboree, with almost 53 leaders due to come – the largest number ever – in honour, perhaps of Her Majesty the Queen, whose last CHOGM this is likely to be now that her travelling days are coming to an end.
But beneath the diplomacy and ceremony, there will be some deep questions being asked about what the Commonwealth is for in the twenty-first century. And many countries will bring different answers and agendas.
Some British politicians look to the Commonwealth as a post-Brexit lifeboat, a multilateral organisation through which they can improve trade links outside the EU. And why not use this shared language, law and regulatory commonality to boost trade? But while the British Empire was initially a trading empire, the Commonwealth is a different beast. And some members might resent being showered with love by a country that has often seemed to ignore the Commonwealth while its geopolitical and economic focus was in Europe.
Other countries see the Commonwealth as an international club with huge soft power potential. Take India. For years India has been a restrained member of the Commonwealth, despite being one of its largest economies and containing about half its population. India may have been one of the eight founder members, but it was the only one that did not count the Queen as its head of state. It has always been cautious about engaging fully with the offspring of an empire that rendered its countrymen subject to British rule. But now India appears full of enthusiasm. Prime Minister Modi is expected to attend CHOGM, the first Indian premier to do so for almost decade. Indian diplomats are suddenly appearing at Commonwealth events and meetings. And, officials say, this is because India sees the Commonwealth as an organisation through which it can project influence within Asia. And crucially, this is one club that India’s great rival, China, cannot join.
And the UK seems willing to play along with this. British diplomats say that one way the Commonwealth could thrive, and yes survive, as a credible international organisation would be to embrace India. To that end, the UK appears willing to contemplate greater decentralisation with India possibly taking over greater responsibility for the Commonwealth’s trade cooperation.
But is this what the rest of the Commonwealth wants, to swap Anglo-centrism for Delhification? If you are from a developing African country or a small island nation in the Pacific, is this how you see the future of this organisation? Many of the smaller nations, for example, are looking to the Commonwealth to help them tackle the climate change that threatens them with rising sea levels and extreme weather events. We might be horrified by the growing tides of plastic floating across our oceans but to many island nations this poses a clear danger to their maritime and tourist economies. The Commonwealth could help in a tangible and practical way to share best practice and form coalitions to protect these members’ from this environmental threat.
Overlaying this latest bout of Commonwealth introspection is the largely unspoken uncertainty about what happens when the Queen’s reign comes to an end. There is a lack of clarity because it is not automatic that the Queen’s heir, the Prince of Wales, will replace Her Majesty at the head of the Commonwealth. The decision is entirely in the hands of the heads of government at the time. This CHOGM will be a forum to discuss – sotto voce – what should happen. The British government appears ready to allow just enough debate to ensure that Prince Charles is established as the de facto heir apparent. But the UK equally does not want this to become a distracting row that could embarrass the Queen. The reason this matters is not just because officials want to ensure a smooth transition but also because the Queen has been so central to the Commonwealth that her absence could create a vacuum. Her leadership has been part of the glue that has held this organisation together. The risk is that without her, the Commonwealth could come unstuck. Hence the need, once again, for the Commonwealth to change and find a new role for the twenty-first century.