In the third of a series of scholarly articles marking the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London Dr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), celebrates the resilience and relevance of this unique ‘family’ of nations. 

Is it too early to wish for a phoenix? The question – implying that the Commonwealth has to rise from its ashes – presupposes it is already in terminal decline and may even be on the pyre of history. Yet, the modern Commonwealth is clearly viable, it has a future and a bright future at that.

The very fact that different member countries or sub-groups have found in the Commonwealth something worthwhile to belong to – or return to if they were expelled or chose to leave – demonstrates the value countries small (Fiji, for example) and big (like Nigeria and South Africa) attach to its membership. This process of staying together as a ‘family’ is facilitated by its legal status (or to be precise, lack of it).

The Commonwealth is not a treaty-based organisation. Member countries that decided to leave the ‘family’ did not have to jump through extensive legal or procedural hoops. Similarly, countries that (re)joined the ‘family’ did not have to sacrifice existing links as in the case of Cameroon’s membership of Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie and Mozambique in Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa.

No exclusivity or limits on working with others

‘Family’ members were free to try out other combinations of partners such as India and South Africa, as members of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) or IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum). Five Commonwealth countries (UK, Canada, Australia, India and South Africa) are members of the G20 group (25 per cent!), and there are three Commonwealth countries in the European Union (Cyprus, Malta, and UK – until Brexit).

As a multi-national and multilateral organisation, the Commonwealth has a dynamic balance between centripetal tendencies that keep it together, and centrifugal, those that pull it apart. Very often, when not referring to colonial history or decolonisation as unifying factors, the symbolic, but crucial, factor of having the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth by tradition and consensus is highlighted. Individual countries could choose their own heads of state.

Similarly, the shared inheritance of the English language is stressed by having it as the de facto official/working language in spite of having exceptions such as with Cameroon, Mozambique and Rwanda. In matters of trade, one refers to the ‘Commonwealth Premium’, a saving of about 19 per cent in transactional costs in intra-Commonwealth trade due, in part, to similarities in legal and administrative systems.

Politically, the Commonwealth’s shared values – formalised more recently as the Commonwealth Charter – underpin its institutional forms. The Commonwealth’s cardinal belief in parliamentary democracy (as opposed to rule by the military) is enforced through sanctions imposed by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG); and by approval/legitimisation of electoral process though election observers in some cases.

Silver bullet for national or regional crises?

It is perhaps the above political role, as an upholder of democracy/moderation/universalist values, that could help the Commonwealth survive the rising tide of extremism and replacement of liberal democratic principles and values by political orders that, through economic success, or religious certitudes, seek to present themselves as more attractive alternatives.

The rhetorical question, ‘Is Commonwealth relevant anymore?’ has been raised time and again when there is a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’ about a major issue, or frustration with the failure of the organisation to act decisively. On the other hand, those that see continued relevance of the Commonwealth claim with zeal and enthusiasm, sometimes misplaced, that the Commonwealth is a silver bullet to sort out their national or regional crises.

As mentioned earlier, the Commonwealth is not constrained by treaty obligations. Its loose but rooted structures sprout resilience and relevance that member states uncover/discover as solutions at moments of stress and crises. Its flexible links act as mangrove forests that mitigate the effects of tsunamis of disappointment, anger and frustration at the real and perceived failings of the Commonwealth as an organisation, or, as a people’s movement, or, as a bilateral/plurilateral/multilateral trade partner/facilitator.

Dr Balasubramanyam ChandramohanDr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan (left) has taught at universities in the UK, Europe, Africa and Asia. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and of the Higher Education Academy.


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

Crisis, what crisis? The Commonwealth’s cross-racial character makes for a saner world and ensures its relevance

On the record: the grassroots relevance of the Commonwealth

Beyond compare: a commonwealth of people and ideas

Student voices from Commonwealth countries

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

Towards a ‘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).