by J Howard M Jones, Senior Research Fellow

When first teaching at the University of Reading, a student from Fiji recounted to me the experience of attending a garden party at Buckingham Palace. When introduced, with her husband, to the Queen, they knelt and clapped their hands in the manner of greeting a chief in their own country. What impressed them was the Queen’s knowledge of Fiji: not just the fact that she recognised their greeting but that she then recounted the travails of a Fijian dignitary who had very recently survived a severe storm when travelling between islands.

Remembering this incident prompted me to contact some of my former international development studies students to see what they think about the relevance of the Commonwealth as an organisation in the 21st century. This was not to undertake a sample survey but to secure some voices from a range of Commonwealth countries (Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria and India). The views of six respondents (two female, four male) included comments on a range of issues relating to the organisation: its history and colonial legacy, worthwhile features, reform, the role of the Queen, and Brexit.

From Malawi it was noted that the legacy of empire can appear to associate the Commonwealth with neo-colonial motives. When he was a young person, given that independence figures are prominent cultural icons in the West Indies, the student from Guyana could not understand why we even bother with such an organisation. From India came the opinion that the Commonwealth has a fundamental design problem – it was based on one-sided unrequited love and the mistaken feeling that the colonies would forget the hurt of the past and work towards a new future. The key bond was sentiment rather than mutual self-interest. Moreover, in his view, the timing was wrong, as the UN was on an upward curve and a host of multilateral agencies had significant financial resources – in sharp contrast to the Commonwealth’s present limited spending power, as managed by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Even so, all respondents had positive things to say about the Commonwealth: that it forms an international bloc, helping to counterbalance the influence of other political blocs, and provides a platform for countries, however isolated and impoverished, to discuss and debate global issues. Moreover, it was noted by one respondent that this bloc is not part of a system of ‘triumph states’ and that sovereignty is not surrendered to a ‘bureaucratic system’. While from Trinidad and Tobago came the view that the Commonwealth’s significance as a network of trading partners has greatly diminished over time, from India came the suggestion that this organisation could potentially form a counterbalance to the growth of Chinese power and influence in many parts of the world. The student from Nigeria emphasised how many worthwhile reforms are more easily achieved by countries working together rather than alone, and from Ghana came a long list of endeavours facilitated by the Commonwealth – human rights, the rule of law, conflict resolution, press freedom, and gender equality. The most frequently cited positive feature of the Commonwealth was its role in capacity building, through training, scholarships and educational initiatives.

Reforms of the Commonwealth and changes to its structure may be essential to the future of the organisation

Suggested reforms of the contemporary Commonwealth included the promotion of particular policies, and also changes to the structure of the organisation. The student from Ghana emphasised the need of the Commonwealth to address the problem of youth unemployment more effectively, especially in Africa, and in a similar vein, to help deal with the issue of youth migration away from this continent. To counter perceptions of neo-colonialism, the student from Malawi suggested that those nations with negative experiences of empire should now lead the grouping. This, he felt, would help to ensure ‘healing’. While the view from India was that although the present government in that country is more favourably disposed towards the Commonwealth and towards India playing a larger role in this organisation, its South Asian neighbours and smaller Commonwealth countries may be apprehensive about India assuming such a role.

Just one student, the student from India, specifically commented on the role of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. After noting the dynamic and decisive role that she has sometimes played in Commonwealth affairs, he stated, rather bluntly, that after her successor, whoever that may be, takes her place, it is not a question of ‘if’ the organisation will survive, but of when it will become irrelevant.

Finally, the student from Guyana suggested a role for the Commonwealth in a post-Brexit world, but not in a way envisaged by the leading Brexiteers. This was the student who felt little empathy with the Commonwealth in his youth; then, having secured a Commonwealth Scholarship, he personally experienced the value of the organisation in providing opportunities for cross-fertilization of technical skills and ideas between member countries. For him, the Brexit vote ‘surprisingly tugged’ at his association with the Commonwealth, and represented a rejection of the ideals of multiculturalism. In this respect he thought that the Commonwealth can play an important role in reminding us of the reasons behind those long fought for ideals.