London this week was preoccupied with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It is an event made particularly special because this is probably the last occasion the Queen will perform her ceremonial role as the Head of the Commonwealth, an honour she inherited from her father King George VI, when the old British Commonwealth was redefined in 1948 to accommodate the newly-independent colonies, particularly India.
Is the Commonwealth relevant in the 21st century? I once compared the Commonwealth to a venerable club, located in a historic building, boasting a great address but hamstrung by resource crunch, archaic facilities and membership indifference. The institution could do with renovation and a relaunch.
What is first needed is a mental re-orientation. In the old days, at least till the early-1980s, arrivals into Heathrow airport used to be greeted by three separate immigration queues: one for British passport holders, one for Commonwealth citizens and one for all others. This was a relic from the days when all citizens from the Commonwealth had an unrestricted right to both enter Great Britain and even live there permanently. Even when the rights of unrestricted entry were curtailed after the Immigration Act of 1971, the fiction of visa-less travel was maintained. Till the early-1980s, British consulates used to issue Entry Permits to Commonwealth citizens, not visas. To this day, Commonwealth citizens living permanently in the UK retain the right to vote and even contest elections.
What is interesting is that this generosity and accommodation of the Commonwealth wasn’t replicated in the other 52 member states. In India, for example, the Commonwealth acquired a small measure of relevance when there was a visit from a Commonwealth cricket time. In the past week, the Commonwealth re-acquired some interest when Indians won gold, silver and bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games in Australia—achievements that constantly eluded them in the more competitive Olympic games involving the entire international fraternity.
Indeed, the biggest problem of the Commonwealth was its fixation with the ‘mother country.’ Despite its large membership, not least in Africa and the Caribbean, it almost seemed that the United Kingdom enjoyed the majority stake in the institution. There were historical reasons for this one-sidedness. In a book—The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth—whose release coincided with the London CHOGM, Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London has written about “the idea of the Commonwealth as a great, soothing comfort blanket for the…dwindling band of post-war imperial enthusiasts. They could reassure themselves that the sad business of granting independence to British colonies wasn’t really the end of the line.”
This was certainly the raison d’être of the Commonwealth till the UK embraced the European Common Market in 1973.
Post-1973, the UK’s commitment to the Commonwealth eroded quite significantly. The only exception was the Queen, who took her role extremely seriously and maintained the bonds of the old Empire. But the rest of the British Establishment, in tune with the philosophy of ‘managing decline’, shifted gaze to the United States and Europe. The Commonwealth wasn’t entirely forgotten but was relegated to the lower rungs of the foreign policy hierarchy. The only occasion when the Commonwealth regained some importance was in the international battle against apartheid. Margaret Thatcher certainly found the Commonwealth member-states’ strong commitment to black majority rule and sanctions an almighty nuisance.
It is this prolonged indifference to the Commonwealth that has made the UK’s post-Brexit rediscovery of its possible importance so suspect. With the media narrative controlled by an editorial class that is inimical to the idea of UK asserting its national sovereignty, the Commonwealth has been posited as a last throw of the dice of all those who cherish wildly romantic dreams of British becoming Great again. It is noticeable that the importance the UK is attaching to CHOGM is matched by the deep scepticism of the intelligentsia for the project. In many Commonwealth member states, this scepticism of the pro-EU intellectuals has found reflection in the belief that the UK is on a downward spiral economically.
Where does India fit into this scenario? It is significant that over the past six months, the UK has courted India quite systematically to ensure it takes the Commonwealth seriously. Since Jawaharlal Nehru was a principal architect of the 1948 settlement that made the Queen (but not the British monarchy) the head of the Commonwealth without the simultaneous obligation of pledging loyalty to the Crown, there is a belief that India must play a lead role in facilitating the smooth transition to Prince Charles in a post-Elizabethan era. The Prince made a special trip to Delhi to personally invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the CHOGM. Modi’s presence in the summit is a big achievement for British foreign policy.
However, more than ensuring Prince Charles’ succession as the titular Head of the Commonwealth, the UK is anxious to divest itself of the role as the sole custodian of the body. London is, in fact, looking to Delhi to take a lead in steering the Commonwealth into another direction: as a meaningful trading bloc. The UK is already engaged in trying to negotiate trade treaties, perhaps even Free Trade Agreements, with countries such as Canada, Australia and India. During its term in office, the Modi government has not negotiated any FTA and its functionaries have often expressed misgivings over the terms of some of India’s existing FTAs. However, on the issue of an India-UK agreement, it seems remarkably receptive. If any meaningful trade agreement is indeed negotiated and comes into play post-Brexit, the possibility of a India-UK-Commonwealth partnership is enhanced. Of course, for this to happen, the Indian bureaucracy has to demonstrate far greater enthusiasm for the very idea of the Commonwealth. As of now this has not been in evidence.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.