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What about the Commonwealth?

The EU made a number of mistakes that the Commonwealth should not repeat.

Submitted by George Callaghan…

It is not settled. The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union in six weeks and no power on earth can stop it. It begs the question what international organisations should the UK emphasise. Dare we mention the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth of Nations has a population of 2.1 billion people. Its economic clout, area and cultural diversity are all very considerable strengths. The Commonwealth is united by a common language and legal system. At the moment the Commonwealth does not have an economic aspect to it. This is something which could be developed. The Commonwealth has its own flag, its own anthem and a headquarters in one of London’s noblest edifices. You might think that the British Empire was a morass of wickedness. But only the most bigoted person would maintain that it had no positive aspects. Some good can come from its legacy. The Commonwealth stands for fraternity and mutual aid.

The EU made a number of mistakes that the Commonwealth should not repeat. The EU tried to push integration further than it would go. The other key mistake was to assume that just because countries are geographically contiguous they have much in common. Contrariwise, simply because countries are far apart on the map they can still share important commonalities.

The Commonwealth of Nations as we know it was created in the 1920s. From the 1860s onwards British dominions beyond the seas attained self-governance. The dominions became completely independent in the 1920s when they started to direct their own foreign policy. However, the Commonwealth countries chose to co-operate with the United Kingdom on defence and foreign affairs. Prior to the Second World War the Commonwealth consisted of the Irish Free State, Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. From 1947 more and more colonies became independent. Almost all of them chose to join the Commonwealth.

In 1949 the Republic of Ireland became the first country to leave the Commonwealth. Until that point Commonwealth countries had to have George VI as their head of state. Legislation was then introduced allowing countries to become republics and yet stay in the Commonwealth. Instead Commonwealth republics would recognize George VI as ‘Head of the Commonwealth’. Note that headship of the Commonwealth is not hereditary. When George VI died his daughter became Head of the Commonwealth but that was not automatic. Commonwealth nations chose to recognize her as such. It has subsequently been agreed that when Elizabeth II is called to her reward her eldest child shall become Head of the Commonwealth.

Some countries have left the Commonwealth but most have them have since returned. Pakistan left in a fit of pique because Bangladesh was admitted to the Commonwealth. Gambia left but has since come back. Zimbabwe left in a huff and is in the process of returning.

The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth directs its day to day affairs. Those who have held this most estimable post reflect the variety of races in the Commonwealth. The incumbent is Baroness Scotland. Her noble ladyship was born in Guyana and is now a British citizen. She is the first woman to fill the post.

The Commonwealth does not interfere in the internal affairs of its member states. Unlike the European Union it has never presumed to dictate the laws of its constituent countries. It has no legislature nor a supreme court. It does not have a military aspect. Indeed, Commonwealth countries have sometimes gone to war against each other. The Commonwealth ought to do more to mediate disputes between member states. A Commonwealth peacekeeping force might be worthwhile for those nations that wish to contribute thereto.

The Commonwealth ought to set up a trade organization. This would allow less regulation for goods and services traded between member states. It could be that not all member states choose to join. Therefore, there would be an ‘Inner Commonwealth’ for those nation states which wish to be part of this trading arrangement.

If an Inner Commonwealth is formed then it might need a court to regulate matters of commerce. Laws could be made by treaty or by setting up a legislature. The remit of this legislature would have to be strictly delimited. This would be to ensure that the legislature did not overstep the bounds of sovereignty. Otherwise the Commonwealth would risk repeating the mistakes of the EU. The intergovernmental approach is probably preferable. Supranationalism would seem to impose an excessive and undue degree of uniformity. Unwarrantable intrusions into domestic matters would raise hackles. This would come over as usurpations of independence and be more likely to break up the Commonwealth.

It has always been crystal clear that Commonwealth nations have the right to secede from the Commonwealth at any time. Until the Treaty of Lisbon was ratified it was unclear if EU countries had the right to leave the EU.

It would be splendid if some countries that are eligible for Commonwealth membership joined. Irish re-entry is long overdue. Some politicians in the Republic of Ireland have called for this. It would mollify unionists. Israel, Palestine, Myanmar and even the United States could join. Some Americans might then labour under the misapprehension that their independence has been removed.

The Commonwealth Games is a splendid example of friendly competition between the member countries. This is a summer series of games. The quadrennium allows tiny Commonwealth members such as Jersey, Guernsey, Gibraltar, Montserrat, the Falklands and so on to take part. These micro polities are unable to participate in other sporting tournaments such as the Olympics and the Football World Cup. The Commonwealth Games also allows the constituents of the United Kingdom to compete against each other. Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England all play against each other. The Commonwealth does not hold a winter games. This is perhaps remiss. On the other hand most Commonwealth countries do not have snowy mountains and to hold such games might appear to be exclusionary.

Scotland, Wales and England have all hosted the Commonwealth Games. It is high time that Northern Ireland staged the games. This is part of the peace dividend. Northern Ireland has the money and the infrastructure. It might also tempt the Irish Republic to seek readmission to the Commonwealth.

Some countries that were never in the British Empire such as Mozambique have chosen to join. In time there might be others who seek to join.

The Commonwealth should set an aid agency. Ever endeavouring for the emancipation and upliftment of its people. Education should be a key part of this. Thus, the Commonwealth would enlighten the benighted. There is already the ‘Commonwealth of Learning’ to promote exchanges between students and academics. There are several others aspects of development aid where the Commonwealth could play a more prominent role.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings  (CHOGM) used to be week long affairs. CHOGM is now a mere two years every other year. Some countries send their foreign minister instead of PM. Or they send the deputy PM. It would be better to hold these meetings annually and for a few days even if only the deputy foreign minister attends.

Deepening the Commonwealth is not a neo-imperialist fantasy. The British Empire is finished and it shall never return. Nobody in his right mind would contend otherwise.

The UK is just another Commonwealth country. It is not even primus inter pares. The Commonwealth could exist without the UK. To underscore this point it is wise that Britons do not play too prominent a role in the Commonwealth especially white Britons.

India makes up 55% of the Commonwealth’s population. In reflection of this the Indians ought to be granted far more roles in the Commonwealth’s nomenclature. To give India 55% of the jobs would be over the top. Perhaps half that number would acknowledge India’s gigantic population whilst not making the organization little more than an extension of India. As the centre of gravity has shifted it might be apt to consider moving the capital of the Commonwealth. Mumbai would be an obvious choice. But that city is badly overcrowded and polluted. Another Indian city might be a wise choice. There are other Commonwealth countries that have very prominent city with excellent global links such as Kuala Lumpur, Cape Town or Toronto that might be good locations. This would underline the fact that the Commonwealth is not the United Kingdom bossing anyone around.

Different ethnicities and faith can live happily intermingled as the Commonwealth amply demonstrates. This is perhaps the Commonwealth’s single greatest achievement.

It is highly improbable that much of what has been adumbrated hereinbefore shall transpire in the short term. But if even a little of it is implemented at any point then something will have been accomplished.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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Excellent analysis and proposals.

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