20 April 2018

The Commonwealth’s search for relevance is never-ending


In turbulent times, there is something to be said for the solid virtues of continuity and reliability. So the week’s most pleasing “Dog Bites Man” headlines accompanied the revelation that a hereditary monarch remains in favour of the hereditary principle. What you see from Her Majesty the Queen is what you get.

“It is my sincere wish”, the Queen said yesterday, “that the Commonwealth will continue to offer stability and continuity for future generations, and will decide that one day the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949”. Well that will be that then. Any thoughts that leadership of the Commonwealth might pass from the mother country to one of its offspring can surely be decently ignored now. Her Majesty has spoken and it seems implausible that the Commonwealth will seek to defy her publicly-expressed wishes.

This will be the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at which the Queen plays any kind of major role. Here, as in so many other areas, arrangements for the passing of the baton are being quietly made. This undoubtedly gives this particular CHOGM a certain and unusual poignancy but it also highlights the Commonwealth’s peculiar strengths and weaknesses. Like many features of the modern British world it is not something that would or could be organised like this if it were invented now.

Prince Charles said he hoped this summit might “give the Commonwealth a renewed relevance to all citizens, finding solutions to their problems and giving life to their aspirations”.

But, to be blunt, for all the fine and warm words about the Commonwealth, organisations that are relevant do not need to talk about their relevance. The Commonwealth, like post-Brexit Britain, is still searching for its role. That does not make it a toothless organisation – the Commonwealth’s role in stigmatising and shunning apartheid South Africa is a reminder of that — merely that it’s purchase on the popular imagination is weak.

How, though, could it be otherwise? How can an organisation that stretches from Antigua to India and Malawi to Canada really have any kind of cohesion? How, moreover, does it both make a virtue of its past associations while moving on from the history of those associations? As in any family, certain conventions must be followed, chief of which is there are some things that must not be said for fear of the consequences that would follow their saying.

Perhaps this explains why, taking time off from campaigning for a new royal yacht that would be some kind of symbol of glorious Brexit liberation, we now hear Commonwealth sentimentalists suggest that the Commonwealth and Queen Elizabeth would be fitting winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Even allowing for previous eccentric winners — Barack Obama, for instance — this seems unnecessarily idiosyncratic. Not least because it assumes the rest of the planet must grant the Commonwealth the same indulgence it is afforded by this country. I fear, however, this is not so and that other countries are liable to view the Commonwealth as a comfort blanket clutched to by a country still hankering after the lost glories of empire.

That is not the reality of life in modern Britain, even if it is easy — perhaps too easy — to characterise it as such. Even so, there remains a sense of hierarchy. That is, “foreignness” may be ranked. For any number of reasons, neither Australia nor New Zealand, for instance, are as “foreign” as Italy or Greece. This owes something to language and something else to history and something else again to ties of family and kinship.

Moreover, the reaction to this week’s appalling Windrush scandal demonstrated that, while the children of post-war immigrants are unimpeachably British, their ancestry means they are British in a very particular way. A way that is not so readily open to immigrants from non-Commonwealth countries whose own path to Britishness follows a slightly different route. In that sense, the Commonwealth does take on some of the characteristics of a family; a fact further exemplified by the manner in which Commonwealth citizens are eligible to vote in UK elections.

The search for relevance is never-ending, however. Efforts to boost intra-Commonwealth trade are useful, especially for smaller, poorer, member countries; a renewed focus on environmental protection is nothing if not timely and worthy. The amount of cash contributed by wealthier members to these efforts is, on the whole, nugatory. And that reinforces the impression of the Commonwealth as a worthy but often little more than ceremonial institution. There are worse things than that, of course, and even sceptics might concede that the Commonwealth is essentially harmless.

But, again, the difficulty remains: can Britain offer robust leadership without seeming to be reasserting ancient and long-gone privileges and assumptions? And if Britain does not lead the Commonwealth, who does and to what purpose? Britain’s history – whatever you think of it – is the glue that holds the Commonwealth together; that history also condemns the Commonwealth to the outer margins of relevance.

That leaves the Commonwealth as a kind of “nudge” organisation. It hints and mildly cajoles its members to do better while doing as little as possible to embarrass anyone. Truly, it is the Church of England of international organisations. We would like you to do more and to do better – on the environment, on gay rights and so on – but we will not make you do so. It is a hand-knitted organisation and, as such, an endearingly earnest one too.

The Queen’s long reign has helped cover up some of these contradictions. She long ago mastered the art of making no news. She has been a Calpol monarch whose long service is increasingly seen for what that service is: the point of the matter. Her son and heir, however, comes from a different tradition. The Prince of Wales has a desire to do things. The Commonwealth’s strength, to the extent it has such a thing, lies in being not doing.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.