Global Policy Forum

The Old, Grey Commonwealth Ain't What It Used To Be


By Doug Sanders

October 16, 2009


I will admit that the last time I paid more than a moment's thought to the Commonwealth of Nations was in the summer of 2005, when I suddenly found a group of excited South Africans hugging me.

I was in Scotland, at a Group of Eight summit, and the news had just been broadcast over the G8 press room's televisions that South Africa would be hosting the 2010 World Cup of soccer.

Once I had de-smothered myself from their jubilant flesh, I felt the need to point out that I was not actually South African. "But you are Canadian," a large and very happy man answered, and his colleagues nodded. "The Commonwealth! It's a victory for all of us!"

I had never really thought of it that way. In fact, I think it has been a long time since anyone in Canada has thought about the Commonwealth that way. It no longer means anything to us, for a very good reason: It no longer does anything for us.

As the Commonwealth celebrates its 60th birthday in London, the Canadian government is doing everything it can to distance itself from this awkward, enormous, ill-defined organization.

And the feeling is mutual: Within the walls of Marlborough House, the Westminster mansion that is home to the Commonwealth secretariat, there is a great deal of anger and antipathy directed toward Canada, which has strongly resisted the Commonwealth's efforts to reach a climate-change pact among its 50 member nations.

"Canada is really hated by Commonwealth members at the moment," one insider tells me. "They have all but pulled out of the Commonwealth."

Even if you don't agree with Ottawa's climate position, it's just as well that we're pulling away from the Commonwealth.

On Monday, Canada will begin free-trade talks with the European Union in a bargaining session in Ottawa. If signed, this integration deal will give Canada open markets and free exchange of goods, capital and government contracts with the 27 member countries. It may also provide free movement of skilled workers.

These are exactly the things the Commonwealth once promised. People of my parents' generation imagine that the Commonwealth offers some sort of benefit in visa or trade privileges. Otherwise, why have it? Surely, at least, it lets us import Marks and Spencer goods without tariffs?

It gives us nothing of the sort.

Today, the 450 million citizens of European Union nations have the right to live in Britain, work there and settle there as full citizens, without so much as filling out a form. Canada, as a Commonwealth member, has tight visa restrictions. And if you're from Nigeria or Sri Lanka, you'll have a hard time even visiting Britain or Canada.

Since 1991, there has been total free trade between the EU nations. But Britain imposes steep tariffs on the exports of all Commonwealth nations, specifically because we're outside that bloc.

Nor has the Commonwealth given us any trade advantages with India, say, or South Africa.

If you want to find the most damning and caustic critic of the Commonwealth, you need to head south from Canada House in Trafalgar Square, to the headquarters of the Royal Commonwealth Society, where a small revolt is brewing.

"I think we need to ask some very hard questions about whether the Commonwealth has any meaning or purpose today," says Danny Sriskandarajah, director of the RCS, which is the main charity and think tank associated with the Commonwealth.

"It is very much in danger of becoming a relic, and I don't think enough meaningful activity is taking place at the Commonwealth table to convince prime ministers of Canada or Australia that this is a forum worth investing time and money in."

Mr. Sriskandarajah has broken what is almost a pact of silence around the failure of the Commonwealth. He is a unique figure - the first non-British person to run the Commonwealth Society (he is Australian, of Sri Lankan descent) and the first to have emerged from outside its circle of complacency: He was, previously, a leading figure in the Institute for Public Policy Research, Britain's main social-democratic think tank.

In the summer, he shocked the secretariat by commissioning a survey of citizens of most member countries that revealed that fewer than a quarter of Canadians can name a single thing the Commonwealth does and two-thirds would support Canada leaving it entirely. Other wealthy Commonwealth countries had similar results.

Rather than lamenting this, he suggested strongly that the Commonwealth might not be worth saving, or will need a complete overhaul if it is.

Given that it is, by definition, both monarchist and colonial, the Commonwealth at one time did a surprisingly good job, for a couple decades, of pretending to be a progressive, liberal, democratic group. That's mainly because things such as the European Union and North American free trade agreement didn't yet exist, and a number of nations, including Canada under Pierre Trudeau, tried to engineer the Commonwealth to fill that role.

Canada even designed a Commonwealth flag, and it introduced its scholarships and its Games. There were pacts, and development funds, and successful efforts to promote democracy.

In its most heroic moment, the Commonwealth's members united against South Africa's apartheid regime, a gesture that had a serious impact and contributed to apartheid's abandonment (which is part of the reason for all that hugging I received).

But today, when more important organizations have eclipsed it, there is a problem: If it changes itself to become "relevant," ending its cozy but meaningless clubby status, it will become a challenge to the more valuable relationships its members already hold.

If it pushes democracy or rights harder, its poorer members will accuse it, with some reason, of being neo-imperialist. If it pushes on things like climate change, countries such as Canada, rightly or wrongly, will be less happy to stick around.

Any effort to give it a purpose will rip it apart. Sixty years after its creation put an end to the colonial era, it might just be time to say farewell to the post-colonial era, and fold up the flag.



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