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The Commonwealth isn’t Tinkerbell: it won’t die if the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies doesn’t believe in it

The Empire's New Clothes: the myth of the Commonwealth

The director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), Professor Philip Murphy, writes about his new book, The Empire’s New Clothes, the Myth of the Commonwealth, which was published by Hurst in April.

It was a rare example of a Baldrick-style ‘cunning plan’ actually working out as intended. My pitch to Hurst was that if they brought out my new book on the Commonwealth in time for April’s Heads of Government summit, we would have an ideal marketing opportunity in that brief moment, which now occurs every couple of years, when the international press is actually interested in the organisation.

It would be a highly critical account, suggesting that the Commonwealth might already have exceeded its sell-by date by a couple of decades. “OK”, they said. “So long as we have the manuscript by the end of September.” We both kept our respective sides of the bargain and the book went on sale on 19 April, just as leaders were convening in Buckingham Palace for the formal part of their meeting.

The notion that journalists from around the world who had arrived in town to cover the summit should be remotely interested in the latest musings of the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) might have seemed just a little presumptuous. But the press, understandably, want a ‘story’, and their definition of what constitutes a ‘story’ rarely corresponds closely with whatever platitudinous, good news messages the official Commonwealth is currently pushing.

It really just comes down to the basic law of supply and demand: too many journalists chasing too few stories. And that’s an extremely promising sales environment for the author and publisher of a fairly controversial, Commonwealth-related souvenir from London.

As it turned out, two stories caught the attention of the media. One was a development, which was heavily trailed in my book. At a press conference in the run-up to the summit, officials had made a brave but largely futile effort to interest journalists in a variety of worthy initiatives. Yet members of their audience, who tend to view the Commonwealth solely as a framing device for stories about the royal family, were interested in only one thing: whether Prince Charles would be the Queen’s successor as head of the organisation. And given the media’s particular fixation, it was very much in the interests of the Palace, the Commonwealth and the British government not to deprive them of a happy ending to this story. So the summit ended with news that the Queen’s ‘sincere wish for Charles to inherit the headship would be granted.

By contrast, the coverage of the shameful treatment of members of the Windrush generation, which dominated the news agenda in the earlier part of the week, was a development few had foreseen, least of all the British prime minister and her home secretary. But there was a certain poetic justice here. As my book argues, it is a mistake to see the modern Commonwealth as a distinctly ‘British’ invention. The main force shaping its institutional framework has been ‘customer demand’: and given that, most of its members are from the developing world, this has given the organisation a focus that has not always sat comfortably with the agenda of the UK.

For all its faults, some of that radical spirit, which was so apparent in the 1960s and ‘70s, remains alive. Therefore, it was always risky for the British government to try to commandeer the organisation behind a set of right-wing, post-Brexit objectives. Instead, the summit threw a powerful spotlight on a profound injustice perpetrated by the government against some of its most vulnerable citizens. Theresa May’s administration had, in effect taken the Commonwealth on a joyride only to find it swerving out of control and crashing into a ditch.

Between Charles and Windrush, the press still had enough time on their hands to notice the publication of The Empire’s New Clothes. One commentator described my book as having ‘queered the pitch’ of the summit. And many expressed surprise that such a critical account of the organisation should have been written by someone who announced himself as ‘director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’. I am used by now to being confronted by this supposed anomaly. My response tends to draw on one or more of the following elements:

(a) The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is part of the School of the Advanced Study at the University of London. As such, it is wholly independent from the official Commonwealth, its members enjoy complete academic freedom of speech, and it provides a platform for a wide variety of views on the contemporary Commonwealth and related issues.

(b) There were plenty of heads of Soviet studies departments in the 1970s and ‘80s who weren’t card carrying members of the Communist Party.

(c) The Commonwealth isn’t Tinkerbell: it won’t die if the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies doesn’t believe in it.

In fact, the interest aroused by the book has merely strengthened my view that the ICwS has been right to distance itself somewhat from the official Commonwealth. It became clear to me soon after taking over as director that it would not be fulfilling its proper function as part of a national humanities centre if it was merely an occasional place of worship for the dwindling congregation of Commonwealth ‘True Believers’.


Watch Philip Murphy at the British Library debate: The State of the Commonwealth

 

At this pivotal moment, when the UK has to make decisions about its future external orientation, there has never been a greater need for informed and genuinely independent voices in the debate about the role of the institution. In discussions about Brexit, too many of its supporters have been unwilling to puncture the wilder claims of Eurosceptics about the potentially vast economic potential of the Commonwealth, for fear of being seen to talk the organisation down. It is actually doing the organisation no favours to set it up for another failure, one that could have hugely damaging repercussions for the UK.

Above all, I have the comfort of knowing that The Empire’s New Clothes is a completely honest account. It is written, for the most part, in the first person and is based on direct personal experience of observing and interacting with the Commonwealth over nearly a decade.

If my book depicts the Commonwealth as something closer to a mirage than a modern international organisation, it is because in my early days as director of the institute I reached out in the hope of touching something solid, but encountered only hot air. In the wake of the summit, the official Commonwealth and its acolytes have been busily intoning the mantra that the organisation is ‘more relevant than ever’ as though seeking to lull each other into a collective trance.

Having heard this soundtrack at regular intervals over the previous decade while observing the steady decline in the Commonwealth’s fortunes, I have become immune to its soothing sentiments and have come to trust the evidence of my own eyes. ‘Freedom’ wrote George Orwell ‘is the freedom to say two plus two make four.’

The freedom to speak honestly about the Commonwealth is as important now than it has ever been, and it should surely be available to the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Professor Philip Murphy (left) is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) and professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London. He has published extensively on the history of British decolonisation and, recently, on the Commonwealth-wide role of the British monarchy. Since 2007, he has been co-editor of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. His latest book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth, was published on 19 April.

More information
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

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

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 action

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