The Commonwealth: Reiterating imperial roots – By Richard Dowden
I gather that the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Foundation are to be merged next year and presented as a Jubilee gift to the Queen on her 60th anniversary as monarch. It is to be called The Jubilee Foundation. The decision will be ratified at next month’s Heads of Government meeting in Perth Australia.
Can the two be merged? The RCS is a charity which organises events to discuss Commonwealth issues, mounts art exhibitions and other events. Its headquarters in Northumberland Avenue also host the Commonwealth Club which provides all the comforts of a good meeting place; food, drink and comfortable chairs as well as the facilities of an office. I am a member and it’s a very convenient meeting place without the stuffiness of a London club.
The Foundation on the other hand is the non political arm of the Commonwealth working on civil society and NGO capacity building in areas such as education, culture gender, human rights, health and peace building in developing countries. It is based in the exceedingly grand Marlborough House, one of the Royal Palaces and has had some damaging internal staff problems recently.
Apart from the fact that both are currently managed by the dynamic Danny Sriskandarajah I cannot see how these two very different organisations fit together.
My worries are twofold and more fundamental however. Queen Elizabeth is head of the Commonwealth as herself, not as the British monarch. Technically Britain is not the leader of the Commonwealth, it is a free association of nations that once formed the British Empire but, with Rwanda and Mozambique joining, a country no longer needs that imperial connection to be a member. The Queen is known to take the job very seriously, and having watched her at several Commonwealth functions, I can see that she simply loves it. However, her successor does not have to be the British monarch. The member heads of government will decide. To “give” two of the secondary but important arms of the Commonwealth to her as a Jubilee gift smacks of empire and a British-centred Commonwealth. This is a retrograde step.
Secondly unless the Commonwealth acts and is seen to act on the big issues of our time it becomes merely a club of High Commissioners in London and a bland meeting of its heads of government every two years. There was a time when these meeting were less stage managed and created real debate and interesting outcomes. I follow the news fairly carefully and I can honestly say that since Kamalesh Sharma became Secretary General, I cannot think of a single statement or Commonwealth event that has attracted any international attention. No wonder it complains the press ignores it. But Mr Sharma is lobbying for an extension of his term as Commonwealth Secretary General so this is unlikely to change.
The Commonwealth is mainly about cosy power. Small countries can cosy up to Britain and Britain coddles them with aid and makes sure they do not step out of line. It will never challenge the UN as the forum for the big debates. Much of its role is now superceded by the G20. The British maintain the Commonwealth financially, keeping its former colonies sweet by a meeting of the British prime minister with each head of state every two years, making them feel special as Commonwealth members. For a day they sit on a big international table. If you are a small island in the Pacific, that membership is very valuable. If you need, for example, an international maritime lawyer a quick phone call to Marlborough House will produce a sharp lawyer from the Caribbean within a week. Membership of the UN could not do that. Small isolated states benefit from membership of the Commonwealth as long as they tow Britain’s line, but what is in it for the middle income countries such as India, Canada, Australia?
The Commonwealth’s great advantage is that it has members from every continent and every quartile of the wealth of nations chart. But it is controlled by ABCs as they call Australia, Britain, Canada with New Zealand playing a supportive role. These are the “Old Commonwealth” countries, older, richer and more powerful – though not more numerous or populous. So why does the difference in wealth not split the Commonwealth? And how long before India overtakes all of these old countries in wealth and power? These proposed changes in the Commonwealth are about reinforcing the past, not building the future.