As London prepares to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, senior research fellows at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), provide a challenging range of views on how the Commonwealth which emerged out of empire can renew itself as a vibrant force for the future. In the first of a series of responses to the questionIs the Commonwealth relevant?, Dr Sue Onslow, ICWS deputy director, explains how lessons are learned from criticisms.   

The debate around the relevance, or otherwise, of the modern Commonwealth is nothing new. There have long been questions about its viability and usefulness, or cries of ‘Crisis!’

Richard Bourne, the seasoned Commonwealth activist, believes the organisation needs a regular crisis to shake it out of complacency, and for its supporters and sceptics to acknowledge its positive attributes.

Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, Guyana’s former foreign minister, recalls a warning from his then prime minister to forget the Commonwealth as ‘It’s going nowhere’ (Shridath Ramphal, Glimpses of a Global Life). Ramphal disagreed, arguing that ‘It may be like that now, but we can change it. It can go somewhere.’ He went to serve as its second secretary-general from 1975 to 1990.

A combination of the Cold War international environment, the developmental needs of post-colonial states in transition, and the strategy of opposition to apartheid in South Africa gave the post-colonial association a visibility and relevance. (‘The Commonwealth, the Cold War, Neutralism and Non-Alignment, 2015, pp.1059-1082). But is the Commonwealth relevant to today’s complex and interconnected world? This seemingly simple question raises others such as ‘relevant to whom, and for what?’

Participants at the ICWS’s recent ‘Witness seminar, Britain in the Commonwealth: the 1997 Edinburgh summit’ talked of a subtle and fluid ‘political imagination’, an ‘organism rather than an organisation’. Indeed, to the average Brit there is general confusion about its purpose, there is civil service scepticism and exasperation and political misattribution (Eva Namusoke, ‘A divided family. Race, the Commonwealth and Brexit’). But this is almost entirely down to historical ignorance and appreciation of how much Britain actually owes the modern Commonwealth for easing the path of decolonisation through generous acts of forgetting.

This question of relevance, or otherwise, is a British issue reflecting an Anglo-centric viewpoint and preoccupation with narrow power relations, of arguments within a limited metropolitan elite. However, it must be said that to Indian and South African political, bureaucratic and commercial elites, the Commonwealth is now very largely an irrelevance. Once useful but certainly no longer so (Krishnan Srinivasan, The Rise, Decline and Future of the British Commonwealth and Nobody’s Commonwealth? The Commonwealth in Britain’s post-imperial adjustment, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, Vol.44, Issue 2, 2006, pp.257–269). And regionalism, according to Alexander Downer, Australia’s high commissioner to London, has further corroded its image and diminished its efficacy as a ‘network of networks’.

But what about other states and societies across the association? As the ICWS fellows taking part in this series will point out, it depends on political leaders, communities and wider populations, and on which issues this assessment of relevance is made.

The UK’s Department for International Development has long valued the Commonwealth for giving a ‘voice’ to small states. It recognises, according to James Manor, emeritus professor of Commonwealth studies at SAS, that their national interests, security and developmental needs are largely ignored or drowned out in other multi-lateral organisations.

Professor Eldred Masunungure, director of Zimbabwe’s Mass Public Opinion Institute, points out that the post-Mugabe political leadership’s ‘robust re-engagement’ with the international community sees re-joining the Commonwealth as a potential quick win in foreign policy to underpin the ‘non-coup’. Moreover, that it will restore Zimbabwe’s reputation via a kite-mark of respectability, legitimise and validate the new political leadership in a drive for stability, and attract desperately needed foreign investment.

Speaking on record earlier this year Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, who represents Matabeleland South in Zimbabwe’s parliament, said the Commonwealth also offers the opportunity to detoxify lingering post-colonial sensitivities embedded within the London-Harare relationship. And for Tendai Biti, leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, ‘Zimbabwe has a constitution. It needs constitutionalism.’

Therefore, the multiple meanings of ‘Commonwealth’ are directly connected to questions around ‘relevance’, the range of expectations around ‘impact’, and the multi-dimensional association’s capacity to deliver. The debate around its relevance will continue to roil on. As it should.

As a ‘political imagination’ founded on inclusive identity politics, the Commonwealth will always be partial and imperfect, flexible and disorganised, with powerful silos of intense energy and professionalism, in contrast to fixation on vapid process or sclerosis in other areas. At a 2015 ICWS Colonial Legacies conference, Canadian political counsellor Douglas Scott Proudfoot stated that the association could learn a lot from the revitalised International Organisation of La Francophonie, the French post-colonial association.

There are, however, important and positive examples of enduring contemporary relevance: the Commonwealth’s electoral observation work is respected internationally; and its professional networks continue to support capacity building. An example is the team sent by the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association to the Gambia in March 2018 to help train judges for the country’s legal system that had been compromised under President Yahya Jammeh’s authoritarian and quixotic rule.

Commonwealth summits provide venues for caucusing on key issues. Examples are the 2009 meeting in Port of Spain (before the Copenhagen summit on climate change), and the 2015 Malta summit immediately before the Paris COP21 meeting. Bilateral ‘hook ups’ on the margins of heads of government meetings are more valuable than set speeches around a 53-seat conference table.

Its envoys’ work in conflict situations only become known years after the event, and here (as in other areas such as its work on maritime boundary disputes) restrictions on access to the Secretariat archives do not help its cause. Fundamentally, the Commonwealth’s cross-racial character is its key contribution to a saner world.

Dr Sue Onslow is a senior lecturer and deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has written widely on British foreign policy and decolonisation, and southern Africa in the Cold War era. Her latest publication is the co-written biography, Robert Mugabe (Ohio Short Histories of Africa).

Also in this ‘Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting’ series:

On the record: the grassroots relevance of the Commonwealth 

When the future is bright, who needs a phoenix? 

Beyond compare: a commonwealth of people and ideas 

Student voices from Commonwealth countries 

Visible engagement – essential for the rule of law and human rights 

Commonwealth 21st century development paradigm

Commonwealth of nations – not Britain 

From apartheid to Brexit – decolonisation is a two-way street

The Commonwealth and me – a view from West Acton, the last in this series, will be published on 18 April 

More information

In defence of free media: what can the Commonwealth do? (11 April). With the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the event will propose guidelines to improve the safety of journalists and strengthen the role of the media in member states.

Re-engaging with the Commonwealth? Gambia and Zimbabwe (16 April)

The state of the Commonwealth (19 April) British Library debate and launch of Professor Murphy’s iconoclastic book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth in which hestrips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia’ (Joanna Lewis, associate professor of international history, LSE).