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A Commonwealth lifeline for Brexit Britain? Not a chance

Commonwealth

Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, is ‘extremely sceptical’ about the ‘old, tattered, comfort blanket’ of Commonwealth as Empire 2.0.

There’s a widespread assumption that if the UK leaves the European Union (EU), the Commonwealth, an association of 53 states most of them former parts of the British Empire, will take on a renewed importance. I’m extremely sceptical about this.  At least at the level of international organisations, there’s a simple distinction for Britain between the EU and the Commonwealth: one matters and the other doesn’t. It’s a lesson we’re in danger of having to learn the hard way.

Frankly, if the UK decided to leave the Commonwealth tomorrow, it would be remarkably easy process. Formally it would require little more than a short note along the lines of ‘We’re off. Love, Boris’.  And, beyond having to rename the ‘Foreign and Commonwealth Office’, with the attendant costs of new signage and stationery, and devise some new protocols for Buckingham Palace garden parties, nothing very much would change.  In marked contrast, the process of attempting to leave the EU has utterly consumed British politics since the time of the 2016 referendum, and the prospect ahead is of many more years of fraught debate and negotiation, at the end of which the UK is likely to be a diminished force, both economically and diplomatically.

This may sound like a rather bleak analysis from the director of the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies. But now, of all times, it’s important to be honest with ourselves about Britain’s place in the world and its relationship with its European neighbours and its former colonial territories. The EU, and its crowning achievement, the Single Market, are the products of decades of hard bargaining and painful compromise in which the member states have been prepared to pool important elements of national power and sovereignty in order to create something greater than the sum of their parts. The hostility it arouses in many quarters owes much to the fact that its influence permeates almost every element of daily life in its member states and helps to shape the nature of the global economy.

The Commonwealth, by contrast, is the product of centrifugal forces: the fracturing of the world’s largest modern empire and the achievement of ever greater autonomy by its component parts. Within 30 years of the end of the Second World War, the tangible elements which bound Commonwealth members together – common allegiance to the Crown, preferential trading agreements, the Sterling Area, and common rights of citizenship – had withered away. British trade with the Commonwealth, which peaked in the middle of the twentieth century in the wake of the devastating impact of the Second World War, was already in steep decline long before Britain finally joined the ‘Common Market’. And it is simply contrary to the whole character of Commonwealth members’ relationship to Britain and to each other to imagine that they would be prepared to compromise their hard-won national sovereignty in order to put some post-colonial Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The British government may have been slow to come to terms with these changes, but it wasn’t that slow. It made its first application for membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961, and the fact that it only finally joined twelve years later owed more to two separate uses of the French veto than to a lack of realism in Whitehall.

So why has the Commonwealth become a talking point again in the context of Brexit? It certainly isn’t due to any renaissance of the organisation itself. The Commonwealth Secretariat is widely viewed as an ineffective body and, as a consequence, has increasingly been starved of funds. During the referendum campaign it was notable that few of those who argued that the Commonwealth might provide Britain with some sort of substitute for Europe had any real experience of the current state of the organisation. It tended to be cited as part of the soothing mood music intended to reassure British voters that the country would not be isolated after Brexit.

Yet there were few hints about how Commonwealth trade might be boosted or why leaving the EU would facilitate that process. Nor had Commonwealth leaders been vocal in calling on the UK to break away from the EU and renew old trading links (what sceptical British civil servants had dubbed ‘Empire 2.0’). Indeed, in a virtually unprecedented outbreak of unanimity, they had been almost as one in urging Britain to stay put.

To outside observers, many of whom have been disturbed by the sight of what appeared to be a national mental breakdown, there has been an understandable tendency to apply some amateur psychiatry to the British. A frequent diagnosis is that they are especially prone to ‘Imperial nostalgia’. On one hand, the term nostalgia is arguably both too broad-brush and too loaded be a particularly useful tool in diagnosing the causes of Brexit. And it does little to explain why the 2016 referendum result should have been so different from that of 1975, when British voters overwhelmingly endorsed Britain’s continued membership of the EEC. Political historians of the future will probably opt for more concrete explanations (not least the power of the Brexiteers’ slogan ‘Take Back Control’, a stroke of rhetorical genius which seems to have tapped deeply into a widespread sense of helplessness as the forces of globalisation have shifted power away from national governments).

If we read nostalgia specifically in terms of a sense of loss, we might find clues as to why the idea of the Commonwealth – as opposed to its flimsy reality – has proved so comforting to the UK in the current climate. British national identity developed in the 18th and 19th century within the broader context of a global Empire. This complicated the process of codifying British citizenship, and when the government finally did so in 1948 it created a single category of ‘Citizens of the UK and Colonies’ and another of ‘Commonwealth Citizens’, to which it accorded identical rights.

Although successive acts of parliament from 1962 gradually removed the rights of entry and residence from the Commonwealth citizens, it was not until 1981 that legislation created a distinct ‘British citizenship’ and quietly phased out the concept of British subjecthood (which had hitherto formally extended to about a quarter of the world’s population). It is why, although the Commonwealth is unlikely ever to be revived as a significant political or economic player in the world, it continues to be of great interest to scholars seeking to understand how Empire has shaped the histories of colonising and colonised countries alike. Indeed, interest in this area, not merely as a subject of academic study but as a focus for activism and an issue in international diplomacy, has never been more intense. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies will be showcasing research in this area throughout 2020 with a major series of lectures entitled ‘Legacies of Colonialism in the Modern World’.

And for the British, the Commonwealth is, in an important sense, the ghost in the machine of the national psyche. We’re simply not used to being alone. And hitherto we haven’t been. As the ship of Empire finally sank beneath the waves in the 1960s and 70s, the British scrambled aboard another international vessel: the EEC. Having genuinely to fend for ourselves is a novel and frightening concept, particularly in a world in which figures like Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping are vying for power and influence. No wonder we sometimes reach for the old, tattered, comfort blanket of the Commonwealth.

Professor Philip Murphy is the author of The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth.

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