The Commonwealth: a dark past to a bright future?

By Hanna Suliman-Nicol

Last week, the Commonwealth Heads of Government gathered in London and Windsor to address the shared global challenges they face and to devise pathways that aim to create a better future for the 53 member states. This meeting comes during an intense period of scrutiny for the association, with the Windrush controversy and question of who will succeed the Queen as its head threatening to overshadow the success of the recent Commonwealth Games. Behind these problems, however, lies an even greater question.

At the heart of these concerns is the matter of the Commonwealth’s function in the twenty-first century. More and more voices are joining the calls for its reform, arguing that it currently exists purely as a relic of colonialism; some have gone as far as to accuse it of operating as a coercive body that espouses neo-colonialist policies. Much has changed since the Commonwealth was formally constituted in 1949, so it is not surprising that, perhaps, it is time for the Commonwealth to also change.

Much has changed since 1949; it is time for the Commonwealth to change

The key issue faced by the Commonwealth is that, 60 years after its inception, there still exists huge inequality between its member states. Sierra Leone has a GDP of 3.6 billion dollars, which pales in comparison to the UK’s 2.6 trillion dollars; yet the West African nation is representative of a general trend, rather than an exception, suggesting that the Commonwealth’s economic policies merely function as ineffective handouts that increase dependency on more developed nations. Simply put, the wealth is not ‘common’.

There still exists huge inequality between member states

This disparity extends beyond economic factors, with many people from developing Commonwealth nations facing social stigma. In the UK, there is a deep-rooted ignorance towards the role that people from the Commonwealth played during and after the war. As David Lammy said to parliament, it was despite slavery that the people of the Caribbean fought for the British in World War II.

In the Commonwealth, the wealth is not ‘common’

These are the same people whose children now face deportation, despite having lived and worked legally in the UK for decades, all because of failed British bureaucracy. People from across the Commonwealth, particularly highly-educated nations like India, were brought to the UK during the 1970s to fill gaping holes in the NHS, yet now find the current UK climate hostile. Brexit has only exacerbated the racist notion that Britain is for ‘British people’, forgetting people from across the globe made and continue to make the UK the nation that it is today.

People are still ignorant of the role Commonwealth citizens played during and after the war

Despite these issues, the Commonwealth is still a promising institution that can provide some cohesion between states with a shared past. It should seek to foster links between nations, with the UK leading the way by fostering an outward-looking ethos in a post-Brexit world. Funding should be more transparent to avoid corruption, with more money being directed to scholarships that enable bright students to study abroad and then reinvest their skills back into their home nations.

Knowledge and values should be shared; as Tom Daley highlighted, in 37 member states homosexuality is illegal. The UK should be doing more to encourage open-mindedness and the democratisation of nations. But the UK can learn from Commonwealth nations too: one of the items on the agenda for discussion is climate change and the reduction of waste – in this area, Kenya bests the UK, having enacted a ban on plastic bags that can see people jailed for up to four years.

There is still a future for the Commonwealth, but it should focus on creating a more equal world

For all of the above to happen, there needs to be a frank and honest acknowledgement of the Commonwealth’s past. If Charles is to succeed his mother, for the Commonwealth to not seem like a substitute for a lost Empire, it has to be done with the sensitivity and understanding that these nations were initially bound by their subjugation to the British.

There is still a future for this organisation; but when it comes to examine how it will function in the future, it should remember its shared values of democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, and the rule of law, and use these tenets to create a more equal world.

Photograph: Brian Harrington Spier via Flickr

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