Commonwealth stuck in time warp, seeks new direction

As with most such global events, several headline-grabbing announcements are made at CHOGM, but rarely, there is similar high-profile follow-up on whether they have been delivered

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 12 Jun 2022, 10:59 PM

What is the point of the Commonwealth? This is not a new question. It has been raised several times in the past, particularly by experts and commentators during the high-profile Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), whose 26th edition is due to begin from June 20 in Rwanda. For all the trappings of a 54-country grouping – its secretariat is located in Marlborough House in Pall Mall, just down the road from Buckingham Palace – not many are aware of what exactly it does. It often finds a mention in Queen Elizabeth’s speeches, most recently during the Jubilee celebrations, when beacons were lit across the Commonwealth to mark 70 years of her reign, a period when she was also the head of the group. She has visited every Commonwealth country, except Cameroon and Rwanda, and 15 member-countries still have her as their head of state.

Founded in 1949 and comprising mostly countries of the erstwhile British Empire, the group’s relevance at this juncture is all the more open to question, when newer groups are formed (such as QUAD, AUKUS), older groups such as the United Nations face challenges in preventing conflicts, and the international order itself under strain from various quarters. A CHOGM is usually held every two years. It was last held in London in 2018, but the next one was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. CHOGMs are elaborate affairs, held under tight security, bringing together many leaders, ministers, experts and NGOs. The United Kingdom has been the group’s chair-in-office since the London event; the office will pass on to Rwanda for the next two years. The location of CHOGM 2022 is also interesting from the British point of view: the Boris Johnson government is about to implement its controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a plan that Prince Charles thinks is “appalling”.

Some commonalities resonate across the Commonwealth: legal systems, language (English) and culture, but it has long been plagued by the existential question: What is the point of it? Philip Murphy, director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, insists that the Commonwealth is a myth. Questioning its relevance, he writes: “For Britain’s administrative elite, the Commonwealth is a bit like a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations. It hasn’t told the right time for decades, but no one has the heart to take such a treasured heirloom to the tip”. The secretariat, funded by contributions from all member-countries, produces several studies, documents and proclamations on various issues. The London CHOGM’s theme was ‘Towards A Common Future’, while the theme at Rwanda is ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’.

The Commonwealth’s infrastructure and network (including affiliated organisations) provide employment to many. Lots of receptions and endless well-meaning conferences are held to explore how the Commonwealth could achieve its ‘true potential’; there are also claims of a so-called ‘Commonwealth effect’ that can enhance trade between member-countries. But while ministers, diplomats and others admit that the Commonwealth has faced some neglect and under-funding in recent years, it has trundled on, particularly contributing to the 31 small island member-countries on best practices on issues such as elections, corruption, gender equality, trade and youth mobility. In some British quarters, the group is redolent of nostalgia about the long-gone empire, indulged wistfully to tick boxes of diversity and difference, while large member-countries such as India, Pakistan and Nigeria have moved on, where the memory of Britain’s colonial past is faint in their mostly young populations.

The Commonwealth was largely absent in Britain’s public discourse in recent decades, but had a revival of sorts due to Brexit, when those campaigning to leave the European Union tried to offset the losses from leaving the EU by highlighting the United Kingdom’s long-standing role in the Commonwealth, which is home to one-thirds of the world’s population (read: ‘bigger trade potential’). But as experts pointed out, even if the current trade with all 54 Commonwealth countries were to suddenly go up exponentially, it could not compensate for the potential loss from losing access to the EU market in real terms (a free trade pact with India after Brexit is one of the major ‘fruits’ held up by Brexiteers). The big hope was that the Commonwealth would rescue Britain from the self-inflicted wound of Brexit. Before the 2016 EU referendum, most Commonwealth countries did not want Britain to leave the EU, since its EU membership allowed many developing member-countries access to the UK market on advantageous terms. Now Britain needs to revisit trade terms with all Commonwealth countries.

As with most such global events, several headline-grabbing announcements are made at CHOGM, but rarely, if ever, there is similar high-profile follow-up on whether they have been delivered. At Rwanda, the Commonwealth’s long list of good causes is likely to be rehearsed – such as ending war, poverty, tackling climate change, spreading democracy, promoting gender equality. One interesting project announced at the London CHOGM was that India, a cricket superpower, would train youngsters from Commonwealth countries at its world-class facilities, which drew much applause. India had offered to train 30 boys and 30 girls under the age of 16 every year with the help of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. A legacy of colonial rule, cricket is one of the most popular sports in member-countries such as India, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and West Indies. The idea was to reach out to smaller countries that do not have cricket facilities and access to coaches. But in cricket’s high-octane world of commerce and compromise today, not much has been heard of the plan since it was announced.

— The writer is a senior journalist based in the UK.

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