Not many people know that April 19 is Commonwealth Day. There is no public holiday, and the country will go about its business much as usual. This year, however, might be different. Fifty three Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meet in London this week for their biennial conference to address their ‘common future’ and ‘build a better’ one. The endlessly optimistic Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson considers it ‘a huge opportunity for a global Britain’. In an age of mounting uncertainty and amidst the strains and stresses of Brexit, the Commonwealth offers perhaps an interesting and neglected resource.
The Commonwealth celebrates the fact that fifty three countries – nearly all settled or colonized by the British Empire – retain shared cultural and linguistic ties. As a multilateral arrangement cobbled together as the winds of change blew away the Empire after the Second World War, it has played a somewhat neglected role in managing Britain’s imperial decline. Most people know it only through the surprisingly successful Commonwealth Games that ended on the Australian Gold Coast last week.
CHOGM and the Commonwealth Forum play a less significant role in the popular imagination. To the extent that it does is largely due to Queen Elizabeth as the head of the grouping and her indefatigable work in promoting it. Since its inaugural meeting in Singapore in 1971 CHOGMs have attempted to orchestrate common policies on contentious issues affecting member nations. CHOGMs have addressed, inter alia, apartheid in South Africa, coups in Pakistan and Fiji and electoral fraud in Zimbabwe, albeit with limited success. Apart from the Queen, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have played a key role in sustaining the organization, whilst a number of Euro obsessed British prime ministers, from Heath to Blair, treated it with, at best, benign indifference. CHOGMs appeared to Blair as a commemoration rather than a celebration.
However, if Britain is to play the global role in promoting trade and international legal regimes that Theresa May advocates then the Commonwealth offers a forum rich with opportunity. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have all shown a notable enthusiasm for enhancing closer trade, defence and cultural ties post Brexit. Meanwhile, Singapore and Malaysia also welcome a revived British presence in South East Asia in sustaining international law in the face of Chinese assertiveness and Trumpian unpredictability.
Less obviously but more interestingly is the role a rapidly developing India could play in a reinvigorated a dynamic Commonwealth. In the past the jewel in the crown was often a thorn in the flesh of the Commonwealth Office post partition and independence. Nehru and successive Congress party governments saw non-alignment and the spirit of Bandung as more important for the separate development of the third world and the global south.
Indian foreign policy however has undergone something of a sea change with the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the geopolitical threats India faces from an unstable Northern border and a rising China. As Britain sees the need for enhanced engagement with the Commonwealth so too does Modi. Consequently an Indian prime minister will attend CHOGM after a hiatus of more than a decade. As the largest country in the grouping, India evidently sees a need to cultivate potentially congenial multilateral institutions like the Commonwealth as it too confronts increased economic and security threats. The recent Commonwealth trade review showed India to be the top recipient of fdi within the Commonwealth and the second most lucrative source of investment across the organisation. According to London Deputy High Commissioner Dinesh Patnaik, India is actively seeking ‘a more important role’ in the Commonwealth.
If India does assume an enhanced role within the Commonwealth and the UK Foreign Office moves beyond bland mission statements about human rights and diversity awareness, a reinvigorated free-trading Commonwealth could offer a much needed source of inspiration for both democratic development, international trade and international order.