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The Commonwealth: A Relic of the Past or the Face of the Future?

23 Jul 2014
Philip Murphy
Source: CC Flickr (Gerard Ferry)

In recent years the performance of the Commonwealth, which brings together 53 nations and nearly a third of the world population, has been lacklustre. Over the past decades attempts to rebrand it as an organisation based on shared values have been problematic and relatively fruitless. While there are serious challenges facing the next incoming Secretary-General he or she will also have the opportunity to re-establish the Commonwealth as one of the world’s most powerful and respected think-tanks.

The Commonwealth Games, which open in Glasgow on 23 July, will serve to remind many people of the existence of an international organisation which, despite bringing together 53 nations and nearly a third of the world’s population, rarely hits the headlines. While many regard it as an anachronism, there are still those who support the Commonwealth with an almost religious zeal. This small band of acolytes has recently acquired a new sacred text in the form of a book published by the former British Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, David Howell. In it, Howell seeks to make the philosophical case for the continuing relevance and utility of the organisation. Diplomacy is changing, he argues, relying increasingly on forms of ‘soft power’, rather than the monolithic military alliances of second half of the twentieth century. As such, the Commonwealth, with its numerous official and unofficial networks linking governments and peoples across the globe, is not a relic of the past but the face of the future.

Has the Commonwealth Run Out of Steam?

The problem, as even the faithful tend to acknowledge, is that the performance of the Commonwealth has been lacklustre in recent years. And debates about how to reinvigorate the organisation seldom generate more than the usual platitudes about embracing new technologies and engaging with young people which seem to be the standard remedies of venerable institutions in decline. Seen in the longer-term perspective of its post-war history, the Commonwealth may simply have run out of steam. It was already in danger of becoming an irrelevance half a century ago, as Britain’s policy of forging closer economic ties with Europe, withdrawing militarily from East of Suez and imposing restrictive barriers on immigration gradually robbed Commonwealth membership of the tangible benefits that had previously been associated with it.

Simultaneously, however, the organisation enjoyed a period of rapid growth, a process that drew into its ranks an extraordinary cohort of charismatic independence leaders including Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta. Between 1975 and 1990 the aims and ambitions of the organisation were articulated by the equally charismatic figure of Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir ShridathSonnyRamphal. The organisation also had a central, crusading issue: to bring black majority rule to Southern Africa. It was one to which the Commonwealth could reasonably hope to be of direct, practical value, bringing together as it did the former colonial power and key players in the region. This infusion of charisma and moral purpose arguably rescued the Commonwealth from what might have seemed an inevitable process of decline.

The Problem With Relying on ‘Shared Values’

Ironically, however, while the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s provided the Commonwealth with a fresh injection of charisma and moral capital in the shape of Nelson Mandela, it also robbed it of its sense of mission. And following Mandela’s departure gatherings of Commonwealth leaders have conspicuously lacked the larger-than-life characters that once helped to make them newsworthy. Meanwhile the attempt by the Commonwealth over the last couple of decades to reinvent itself as an organisation based on ‘shared values’ has been problematic to say the least. At the heart of imperial ideology was the expectation that the far-flung territories of the British Empire would feel a greater affinity towards the metropolitan power and each other than they did towards their immediate neighbours. In the decades following decolonisation the sense of regional identity of those former colonies (and Britain itself) has inevitably become more pronounced, and the role of regional organisations such as ASEAN, CARICOM, SAARC and of course the EU correspondingly more important. Their growing prominence has certainly pushed the Commonwealth down the agenda of many of its member states.

But the attempt to find a niche within the plethora of international organisations in terms of the claim that Commonwealth members are in some sense uniquely bound together by a commitment to ‘shared values’ was always a risky enterprise. Besides being patently untrue (witness for example the wide disparity of views over issues such as LGBT rights and the use of the death penalty), it is also virtually impossible to police all but the most extreme affronts to those values. The body notionally responsible for doing so, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), lacks even a permanent administrative staff and a recent suggestion that there should be a separate Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights met a predictably obstructive response from many member states. But the stress on ‘shared values’ also, no doubt unconsciously, harks back to an imperial-era rhetoric of the great global family united by a commitment to the ‘British way of life’.

Some Serious Challenges for the Secretary-General

When the next Commonwealth Secretary-General comes to office in 2016, he or she will therefore face some serious challenges. There are, I would suggest, a couple of guiding principles they need to bear in mind. First, in the twentieth century there is no intrinsic reason why the Commonwealth should exist or why its members should take it seriously. Secondly, the Commonwealth Secretariat needs to break free both from the conservative influence of the High Commissions and from the single-issue politics promoted by the dozens of so-called ‘civil society’ organisations that are affiliated to it. It currently defers to the latter out of a misplaced desire to appear to be reaching out to the ‘peoples’ of the Commonwealth. In practice, however, while some of them bring together formidable networks particularly in the fields of law and higher education, many civil-society bodies are small, underfunded and UK-based. They have no particular claim to be able to represent any given section of the Commonwealth’s 2.3 billion citizens. And too often their main purpose in life seems to be to secure a mention of their own particular pet issue in some Commonwealth communiqué. As a result these documents too often read like an exhaustive shopping list of good intentions without anything of genuine interest or practical value.

Giving the Commonwealth a New Sense of Direction

Having got all of this out of the way, the new Secretary-General can begin to think creatively about giving the Commonwealth a new sense of direction. It is after all one of the world’s best-known and longest-established international organisations based in some prime Central London real estate which it occupies rent-free. The foundations, therefore, are fairly solid. What is needed is just a little bit of courage and imagination to build something valuable upon them. The new Secretary-General may not be as ‘lucky’ as Sonny Ramphal in facing a major international problem to which the Commonwealth could reasonably aspire to be part of the answer. But they could emulate other parts of Ramphal’s legacy.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London is currently undertaking a series of major interviews with the aim of producing an oral history of the modern Commonwealth. A theme which regularly emerges from these interviews is that the Commonwealth during Ramphal’s time is remembered as a ‘smart’ and ‘nimble’ organisation, one that was regularly ahead of the curve in terms of anticipating and proposing solutions to some of the major challenges of the day. With the ability, as Ramphal demonstrated, to draw on the expertise of statesman, academics and jurists from across the planet, the new Secretary-General could re-establish the Commonwealth as one of the world’s most powerful and respected think-tanks. This may be a relatively modest ambition given the supposedly almost unlimited potential some of the Commonwealth’s more fervent supporters still claim for it, but it is at least achievable.


Philip Murphy is Professor of British and Commonwealth History and Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is Monarchy and the End of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2014).