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Commonwealth Day – who really runs the show?

Commonwealth Day


The royals have been piling into the Commonwealth arena as though it were a grouse shoot. ‘For an organisation that has struggled for decades to escape the long shadow of the British Empire, this sort of love-bombing is a distinctly mixed blessing,’ says Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

Missed Commonwealth Day? Really? Was something more important going on? Oh, that!

Well, I’ll come back to that in a minute. But let me just refresh your memory. You know the photos of Kate and Meghan smiling at one another, which were in the Daily Mail and all over social media last week? And everyone was asking had they kissed-and-made-up, and put the bridesmaid thing or whatever it was behind them? Meghan was in a Victoria Beckham outfit and Kate was wearing a ‘recycled’ Catherine Walker red coat and matching dress?

See – you do remember. Well, those photos were taken at the Commonwealth Day multi-faith service in Westminster Abbey. It has been going on there since 1973, partly because the Abbey is a ‘royal peculiar’ (no, really!), which means that the Queen runs the show.

The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS), which organises the event, hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with the Church of England about the ‘multi-faith’ bit. However, in the Abbey, if the Queen wants meditations from Jain and Zoroastrian community representatives, a rap number from George the Poet, or an echoing cover version of Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright (my personal highlight of Commonwealth Day 2012) then that’s what the Queen gets.

Commonwealth Day hasn’t always been quite as whacky; but it’s always been thoroughly royal. It began life as Empire Day, celebrated in the UK from the early years of the 20th century on 24 May – the birthday of the late Queen Empress Victoria. The name was changed to Commonwealth Day in 1958, and in the mid- 1970s the second Monday of March was fixed across the Commonwealth as the day of its celebration.

It was selected on the basis that children would be at school then and thus amenable to being dragooned into suitable forms of commemoration. And that’s what you get in the Abbey on Commonwealth Day: lots of royals and lots of schoolchildren.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the ratio of royals to schoolchildren seems to have increased in recent years. Indeed, the royals have been piling into the Commonwealth arena as though it were a grouse shoot. Over the last year, we have seen ‘The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust’ taking the place of the 2012 ‘Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust’, with Prince Harry as its president and now Meghan as its vice-president. Just over a year ago, Harry obtained the official title of ‘Commonwealth youth ambassador’.

Meanwhile, Meghan recently became patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), while Camilla (whose husband was confirmed last year as the next head of the Commonwealth) was named as vice-patron of the RCS. Over the last few years we’ve seen the creation of the ‘Queen’s Young Leaders Awards’, ‘The Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarships’ and even ‘The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy’ (say it carefully – we’re talking about forests, not an exquisitely-curated little savoury snack).

For an organisation that has struggled for decades to escape the long shadow of the British Empire, this sort of ‘love-bombing’ by members of the royal family is a distinctly mixed blessing. It provides it with the only media attention it is likely to get, as well as a means of leveraging private funding. On the other hand, it’s difficult to present yourself as a modern, progressive force in global politics if many of your most prominent initiatives are prefaced with the phrase, ‘The Queen’s’.

The other group that has been showering the Commonwealth with love recently has been militant Eurosceptics. Their enthusiasm has not always been matched by a knowledge of the organisation or its history (or of history in general).

The week before Commonwealth Day, the House of Commons held a debate on the ‘opportunities and challenges’ of the modern Commonwealth. The motion was moved by James Duddridge, a Conservative MP and ‘No Deal’ Brexit supporter. He told the House that ‘the Commonwealth existed in various guises before the 1949 London declaration, but it was a free association of independent member countries. Quite how we got away with that as part of the European Union, I do not know.’

There are many, many people who could enlighten Mr Duddridge, although they might be hard-pressed to know where to start. It is difficult not to identify, both in those who load unrealistic hopes onto the rickety structures of the Commonwealth and in the apparently reckless confidence of extreme Brexiteers, a similar sort of ‘magical thinking’.

Both rely on emotive and often sentimental rhetoric. Yet neither seems particularly interested in the painstaking, unglamorous, technically demanding but ultimately essential work of tying down firm and lasting agreements. That, in a nutshell, is why the Commonwealth has come to matter so little in contemporary international affairs.

To be fair, the modern Commonwealth has never been slow to criticise, in sometimes-colourful terms, Britain’s more deluded post-imperial adventures: and there has been little inclination to humour the UK over Brexit. Writing in the Guardian on Commonwealth Day, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned that Eurosceptic dreams about the Commonwealth replacing Europe as Britain’s main market were ‘utter bollocks’. And as for its old ‘Commonwealth friends’ riding to Britain’s rescue, ‘[t]hat too is bollocks’.

Maybe this is the point. The Commonwealth may survive as a vehicle for royal philanthropy. Initiatives of this kind already overshadow the meagre efforts of the under-funded and troubled Commonwealth Secretariat. But it’s a poor sort of future for an organisation that once seemed capable of aspiring to genuinely radical credentials. And the Commonwealth certainly isn’t about to provide the basis for a post-Brexit ‘Empire 2.0’.

What genuine friends can do is to warn us, candidly, when we’re in danger of harming ourselves and others. So perhaps, on future Commonwealth Days, we should shun the comforting and self-deluding platitudes that have come to characterise the occasion, and instead listen to our friends.

Professor Philip Murphy is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies 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 is entitled The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth.

Related information

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the UK’s only postgraduate academic institution devoted to the study of the Commonwealth, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Events include:
The ICWS and human rights (25 March)
South Africa’s election and the media (3 April)
The state and Canada (11–13 April)
The Commonwealth and resilience in 21st century (29 April)
Black British history workshops (2 May)
Children of the Windrush Generation (8 May)

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