Image: Civil society organisations (CSO’s) promoting innovative techniques of female empowerment in India. © Commonwealth Secretariat

In the fourth of a series of scholarly articles marking the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London Dr James Chiriyankandath and Dr John Cowley, senior research fellows at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), examine the power of the Commonwealth and a potential yet to be realised. What will emerge will not reflect the ‘state-centric post-colonial Commonwealth of the past’. 

For more than a decade I’ve co-edited Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. First published in November 1961, 12 years after the emergence of the modern Commonwealth, its pages have spanned four-fifths of the history of the organisation. So, in considering its contemporary relevance it might be instructive to examine how the journal’s contributors have viewed the changes in the Commonwealth.

However, before doing so, it is worth noting how the journal’s name reflects the way scholars and political publishers see the importance of the organisation. Launched as the Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies it was renamed The Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics in1974 to give it additional appeal and scope beyond the Commonwealth.

This change was reflected in the articles published. In the 1960s and 70s the Commonwealth figured in the title of 21 articles but in only six of those that appeared in the 1980s and 90s. The decline in scholarly interest, though less pronounced, was evident in terms of how often the Commonwealth was cited – from around 20 or more times annually in the 20th century to about 15 times or less since 2000.

Therefore, it appears that from the informed perspective of those who study politics the Commonwealth has become less significant over recent decades. What does this mean for its relevance today? For larger states it is not of special relevance for their foreign relations. The question the international relations theorist Martin Wight posed 60 years ago seems even more apt now: ‘I ask whether there is any assertion one can make about the relations of Commonwealth countries inter se which will not be true of the relations between some Commonwealth countries and some countries outside the Commonwealth.’

This is not true for the small states who form a majority of the Commonwealth’s remarkably heterogeneous membership. For them its unique configuration ‘containing both large and developed states in wider and more fluid relationships than in similar international structures elsewhere’ is valuable in mitigating the bilateral patron-client relationships they find themselves in vis-à-vis large Commonwealth states (notably Australia, Britain, India, South Africa and New Zealand).

The changes since Krishnan Srinivasan’snobody’s Commonwealth’  

The sense of a loss of purpose for the Commonwealth was caustically expressed in a 2006 article by Krishnan Srinivasan, a former Indian foreign minister and deputy secretary-general of the Commonwealth. Reflecting on Britain’s relationship with it, he wrote: ‘Britain retains substantial Commonwealth infrastructure because there is no one else prepared to pick up the torch and attempt to revitalise the association … it has become nobody’s Commonwealth.’

What such a judgement fails to recognise is how the world and the Commonwealth has changed. In 2001 in the only issue devoted to the Commonwealth as an institution in the journal’s history, a scholar observed that its potential lay in the realm of ‘soft’ security (power): ‘in continuing to pursue the high ideals that it already holds, support the work of the United Nations, encouraging human development and championing a more just world’.

Others have seen a future for the Commonwealth as lying beyond, or transcending, the traditional world of states and international relations (Towards ‘new multilateralisms’? Globalisation, anti-globalisation and the Commonwealth and  Commonwealth and global development: contributions to private transnational governance?. It may well be that the main relevance of the ideals embodied in the Commonwealth is going to be in contributing to the commonwealth of people and ideas rather than the state-centric post-colonial Commonwealth of the past.

Dr JamesChiriyankandath Dr James Chiriyankandath (left) is a political scientist who has researched, taught and published on the politics of the Middle East, South Asia and international relations for three decades.  


Political change in the UK has raised interest in the Commonwealth giving the organisation a status it has lacked in recent years. Suddenly, this extraordinary association of diverse communities that spans the globe is seen to enhance Britain’s prospects.

A core of this conviction is founded in potential for trade and commerce post Brexit. The latter, however, might be viewed as mercenary and materialistic. Ties of language, law and political development, initiated in fundamentals ultimately imperial and controversial, are interpreted in this new light. And bonds of kith and kin together with positive elements of historical as well as current circumstance are counterbalances to the exigencies of past administration.

The existence of such factors is reason for the significance of positive Commonwealth connection, personal and collective communication provides another. Ultimately, the intertwining of historical perspectives binds Britain and its former colonies and sustain a dynamic relationship that remains relevant to the past, the present and the future.

Dr John CowleyDr John Cowley (right) researches indigenous Caribbean musical traditions and its relationship to cultural activity in Paris between the two world wars; West Indian carnivals and their association with Africa, Europe and the Americas; and the history of vernacular black music in the US and Trinidad and Tobago.

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: grassroots relevance of the Commonwealth,

When the future is bright, who needs a phoenix?

Student voices from Commonwealth countries, the fifth in series,

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

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).