Why the Commonwealth, with its space for disparate cultures, still has a role to play.
Just over a week after writing this, I shall be attending the annual dinner of the Cambridge University Commonwealth Society. The society is active, and has a wide variety of student members. This is a reflection of the fact that the Commonwealth “flavour” of this strongly international university is very marked — not least because the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust offers a large number of scholarships.
For the Commonwealth, this is a particularly important year, because it is the Queen's diamond jubilee, and throughout her reign she has been a dedicated and committed supporter of the Commonwealth. This dedication has persisted often in the face of lack of interest on the part of politicians — certainly United Kingdom politicians — and a widespread ignorance of what the Commonwealth is, and what it stands for.
As a long standing enthusiast for the Commonwealth, I naturally find this ignorance, and lack of interest, extremely disappointing, but I have to confess that it does not surprise me. There are several reasons for that. One is that the Commonwealth was formed from the end of empire, and it was therefore much more an accident of history than a consciously created entity. An obvious comparison is with the European Union. In the early days, the cynics could, and did, argue that the Commonwealth was no more than a devious attempt to keep imperial power alive. For many years, however, that has been not even a travesty of the truth.
Another reason for the ignorance and lack of interest is the fact that the Commonwealth has never been a centre of political power, and for many people an organisation which is not a centre of power seems to have little purpose.
Recent events in different parts of the world, I would suggest, provide good reasons for taking a different view of an international organisation.
Let me offer some examples. Here is one. At a time when the financial stability of the European Union is severely challenged, and financial weakness has been a major, and depressing, feature of some member countries, it is difficult to argue that the EU is a wholly effective power bloc.
Here is another. The United Nations Organisation has many things to its credit, but when it is faced with the political crisis in Syria, for example, its power to act is severely limited, not least by reservations by China and Russia — both of course members — about its proposals.
The point I am making is that organisations which are intended to be centres of power often find that the power is severely restricted. Is it wholly unrealistic, therefore, to look for other strengths in an organisation which has never pretended to be a centre of power? One of the most obvious derives from the wide variety of Commonwealth members. To take just one example, it is an organisation which includes India, one of the most populous of the world's countries, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines which, with a population of about 105 thousand, is one of the smallest. Of course, as that dramatic contrast illustrates, there are many limitations to what the Commonwealth can do, but it does not pretend otherwise, and the fact that it offers a forum for countries of such difference surely has something to commend it.
My sceptical friends have always offered in support of their scepticism the “accident of history” argument. They would be well advised to note that two members, which joined in quite recent years, are Mozambique and Rwanda, whose pre-independence history was NOT as part of the British Empire. Their decision to join was for different reasons. When I was covering as a journalist the period of rapid decolonisation in Africa in the 1960s, the assumption was that as they broke their colonial links and became independent of the UK, the ex-colonies would join the Commonwealth. At that period, I would certainly not have expected to find a former Portuguese and a former Belgian colony doing so.
The annual Commonwealth Day Observance at Westminster Abbey (on March 12) will this year have as its theme “Connecting Cultures”, exploring the threads that tie together people from every continent, faith and ethnicity. It is, in short, about something that is relevant now,
Let me return to my Cambridge starting point. The many students from overseas Commonwealth countries in the university are by no stretch of the imagination relics of empire. For them, indeed, the imperial era is distant history. The Commonwealth, by contrast, is for them too a modern reality.