Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Commonwealth Dream: Why Britain should move on

There is talk of reviving the commonwealth, particularly among the British Tories, as they drift away from Europe. William Hague talks about putting the C back in FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and various advantages of doing business with commonwealth countries are mused about. There are sceptics, such as The Economist, who highlights the various roadblocks, and particularly laments that various commonwealth members are not compliant followers of the British, or Western, view of the world. [Read the article here]

The point, however, is not whether commonwealth is relevant from the point of view of Britain, but from its other members, particularly the old colonies. Unlike what the modern British citizens would like to believe (and a comment to that effect was made on The Economist article), Commonwealth was set up much before the liquidation of colonies, and not to assuage the post-colonial 'guilt'. Commonwealth was extended, after India's independence, with modification, as the new Indian state wouldn't accept the Queen as the Head of State and was republican, to maintain British influence, and to retain the trade advantage over and above its other European and North American competitors. In political terms, this was Britain's attempt to cling to a hangover of an empire, in a world being divided in two competing cold war empires at the time.

The reason, therefore, why Commonwealth has lost relevance can be understood from its history. The cold war empires eventually overwhelmed any other grouping; Britain got too busy maintaining its position as the preeminence as the American ally in Europe and NATO; but above all, the ex-colonies moved on and left their hangover behind. One question that the Tory strategists forget to ask is why Britain is any longer relevant to the Commonwealth nations: The Indian companies invest in Britain and snap up British assets because it provides them an easy way into Europe. Replacing the EU membership with love for Commonwealth will make Britain a marginal entity for its commonwealth members.

While the Economist article accuses Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India and South Africa for blocking Britain's efforts to create a Human Rights Commissioner in the Commonwealth, one has to stop seeing this as an evidence of disregard of human rights in these countries, and see this in context of the pointlessness of the commonwealth. Britain has to come to terms with its declining influence in matters like this, and instead look at its warming climate to become a more pleasant tourist island. 

If Britain is to retain its place in the world as a preeminent economic power, it has to exactly the opposite of what it is trying to do now. It has to maintain an ever-closer relationship with Europe, and become its connector to the rest of the world. It has to preserve its universities and scientific, cultural and artistic tradition, not destroy them by depriving them funding and support. It has to come out of the besieged island mentality and let foreign businessmen, workers and students continue to inject vitality, enterprise and knowledge in its economy. In short, Britain has to adjust to its post-colonial realities, and shed its colonial hangover, once and forever.

For India, Australia, Malaysia, and most of other members of the Commonwealth, the future lies in its relationships with China and America, rather than in the old associations with Britain. All the countries speak English, jolly good, so that they can talk between themselves and with the Americans. The Indians are getting to the point of overcoming their past - and they must look East to be able to do so. If British pretension at telling these countries what to do is seen as neo-colonialism, it indeed is: So is this brouhaha with Commonwealth. 

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