Why we should still care about the Commonwealth

It may be a relic of the Empire, but smaller countries in particular benefit from remaining members. 

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On the face of it, the Commonwealth is a strange beast. A hotchpotch of 53 nations, covering a quarter of the world’s land-mass, its leaders represent (after a fashion) a third of world’s population.

Born out of the Empire, it was Whitehall’s answer to the conundrum of what to do with an imperial estate that had grown rapidly and uncontrollably. What to do with this giant mess troubled civil servants as early as 1887, and was discussed at a series of imperial conferences. It was only in 1949 that the term “British” was dropped from its title and the modern Commonwealth was born.

Yet, despite its odd history, it remains an attractive option, especially for the world’s smaller states. The Commonwealth is rather like a battered, mended, shabby coat that almost anyone can put on. Its Secretariat resides in the fading grandeur of Christopher Wren’s Marlborough house on Pall Mall. It’s a place Commonwealth leaders can pop into during visits to London; to complain about the rudeness of British politicians, or to ask for advice.

This gives a hint as to just why leaders like it. States like Australia or India have little need for the organisation. But how else would tiny Nauru, in the Central Pacific, with a population of just 10,900 ever have its voice heard? Britain, with its seat on the Security Council, has a responsibility to oblige. The British gift to this week’s meeting is a £61m fund to fight plastic pollution in the oceans.

Leaving aside the concerns of Commonwealth leaders, I was struck by how often I came across the organisation during my time as the BBC’s World Service’s Africa News Editor. Tramping through the East African bush I would stumble across men such as an Indian vet, who had been flown in at short notice to help stamp out some virulent livestock disease. Commonwealth connections can provide assistance from everything from farming to the judiciary. It is this kind of quiet backup that is really important in an unassuming sort of way.

The Commonwealth is full of strange nooks and corners. The CDC (until the Blair government reformed it, the Commonwealth Development Corporation) funds commercial investments. Some investments have been criticised by organisations like War on Want for being too commercial. But for cash-strapped businesses in Africa and South Asia CDC can be a lifeline, committing $1.3bn of direct funding since Commonwealth leaders last met in 2015. Its investments support businesses with over half a million employees.

A brand-new code of conduct to help the media has just been drawn up; put together by a group of journalists drawn from across the globe, with a fair smattering of former BBC staffers. It is full of the sort of worthy aspirations that such drafts normally include. The state and prime ministers are unlikely to give it a second thought.

It was only at last week’s launch that its importance was brought home. One journalist after another stood up to explain the pressures their colleagues were facing: the death threats in rural India, or the attacks on the press in Rwanda. The principles urge Commonwealth leaders to ensure that “journalists can work without fear of attack, intimidation or interference, and to take prompt measures to protect them when they face a serious threat of harm or are subject to attack”. Without sanctions or a monitoring mechanism it is unlikely to be of much immediate help, but slowly – perhaps imperceptibly – it might seep into the patina of the organisation. World leaders don’t like to be called to account.

Britain itself is unlikely to benefit directly from this week’s Commonwealth summit. It is certainly no substitute for membership of the European Union. As Peter Mandelson argued: “for most Commonwealth producers the UK was chiefly an easy route into Europe.” Perhaps the people who have gained most from the gathering have been the Windrush generation. Acute embarrassment at their plight, just when so many Commonwealth leaders were in London, forced Theresa May’s government into a sharp U turn and an abject apology.

Perhaps the Commonwealth is not so bad, after all.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.