Friday, 22 November 2013

An idea whose time has gone

The spat between Cameron and the President of Sri Lanka drew more attention to the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government than it would normally merit.  Such attention would normally be more focused on the visit by the hereditary head (or in this case deputy head) of the ex-colonial power.  For what it’s worth (and despite my instinctive understanding of the reaction of the President to being lectured by former colonialists), on the substantive issue of an enquiry into alleged war crimes, I’m with Cameron.  (Although he seems to have taken his time about noticing the issue.)
That isn’t the subject of this post, however.  What exactly is the Commonwealth for?  It’s a curious organisation, which has attempted to redefine itself a few times over the decades to become more modern and relevant; but at root, it is about maintaining links between the UK and its former colonies.  As the charter puts it, it’s for those countries which have “a shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law”, and are “bound together by shared history and tradition”. That would be the shared experience of conquest and an imposed language, in most cases.
Two of the main criteria for membership are acceptance of the monarch of the UK (or rather the “monarch of the Commonwealth realms” as they would prefer to put it, using a formula which allows even republics to accept a residual role for the monarch), and the use of the English language.  It’s open to countries which were part of the Empire or which have some sort of constitutional relationship with countries which were part of the Empire (colonies of colonies, and dependencies of dependencies).  This is a rule which may only be waived in exceptional circumstances – in the interests, presumably, of apparent non-exclusiveness.
From the point of view of the London establishment, the attraction of an organisation which allows them to live in the past and pretend that they still have some sort of empire, dispensing their largesse (in terms of aid and trade) more favourably to former colonies than to others is perhaps understandable.  It also gives the Windsors opportunities to visit exotic places (and in the case of one of them, insult the local natives).
From the point of view of the other members, it’s either the fact that Her Maj is still their head of state, or else the expectation of favourable terms for aid and trade that encourages them to see some value in the organisation.  But in the twenty-first century, is there really still an argument for retaining a pretend empire like this?  Whether it’s dreams of the past, or even possibly a feeling of guilt for past misdemeanours, is there really any justification for differentiating amongst those who need aid and trade to favour those who ‘we’ used to rule?
It’s an idea whose time has long gone; it belongs, like the empire, to the past.  It may be an academic question though.  Accepting Elizabeth II as head of the Commonwealth for as long as she lives is comparatively easy; she was, after all, on the throne when most of the members gained their independence.  I somehow doubt that the idea of a hereditary head of the organisation will survive the death of the current monarch.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

Your post is spot on, but this body has life as it is associated with the monarchy and as such is a “third rail” issue and all the questions you raised and the cost to the tax payer is avoided, not even Plaid MP`s will go there and ask questions as to; while Wales partake in the Games why is it we are not allowed to have observer status in HOG conference?
On the other hand why should that surprise me, as Plaid`s leadership and National Council are packed these days with people who wish to preserve and hold dear our “internal colonial status” and work hard to improve and enhance its good governance. So, under the Empire/Colonial definition they are classic Tories.