Has the sun set on Britain’s Commonwealth relationship?

Following a series of public relations disasters, the Commonwealth faces a period of crisis but, with reform and innovation, its future could still be bright.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

David Lawrence

Former Research Fellow, UK in the World Programme

As ministers descend on Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) in Rwanda, one plane is not landing – the first flight for asylum seekers to be processed in Africa by the UK government, grounded by judges in the European Court of Human Rights.

It is a poor look for ‘Global Britain’ at a time when Commonwealth countries are joining in celebrations of 75 years of the Queen’s reign. As CHOGM meets, many may wonder what the purpose of the Commonwealth even is, especially as Australia’s new prime minister has announced he will not be turning up.

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, Britain’s relationships with its Commonwealth partners and British Overseas Territories have been beset by PR disasters and legal quandaries, most recently in Jamaica, where a royal visit was met with protesters demanding reparations for slavery;

For historical reasons – not all of them good – the UK finds itself connected to a genuine global network of countries which for the most part share similar values and systems of governance

Elsewhere the government of British Virgin Islands, backed by local protesters, has strongly resisted direct rule from London, while Barbados has successfully ditched the monarchy and become a republic. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands both came into conflict with London courts on same-sex marriage.

The UK also suffered embarrassing and overwhelming defeats in both the UN General Assembly and the International Court of Justice on the legality of its continued occupation of the Chagos Islands, and it has avoided directly challenging India’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the hope of securing a trade deal.

Divisions between rich and poor increasing

The COVID-19 pandemic has also deepened divisions further, as many developing countries quite reasonably feel wealthier economies failed to provide them with vaccines and medical supplies.

These challenges are unlikely to go away and, when the Queen’s reign ends, republican movements in the 15 Commonwealth states where she is still the head of state are likely to seize their chance.

The Commonwealth still means something to many people around the world, and to many British people. It is an interesting institution. For historical reasons – not all of them good – the UK finds itself connected to a genuine global network of countries which for the most part share similar values and systems of governance. How many other multilateral institutions force the UK government to engage with countries in the Global South, or people of colour?

The G7, European Union (EU), and NATO – the most important multilateral institutions for UK foreign policy in recent years – are made up of predominantly wealthy countries. Progressives who sometimes dismiss the Commonwealth as imperial nostalgia should show more interest in its future.

But to meet the challenges of a more fractured and competitive geopolitical space where Western supremacy can no longer be assumed, the Commonwealth needs to change. A key question for the UK is what it has to offer Commonwealth countries and overseas territories, many of which now rely on China for investment and trade, and Russia for raw materials and weapons.

Is the UK a reliable partner?

One opportunity for reform is location as the Commonwealth’s activities remain almost entirely concentrated in London. This is not only expensive but also reinforces a symbolically imperialist approach to governance which assumes everything must be decided in Britain and gives young British citizens on the civil service graduate scheme more of a say in the Commonwealth’s future than the leaders of member states.

Moving the headquarters out of London would be radical. As the world’s largest democracy and a key ally on China’s border, India is a strong candidate although its current Hindu nationalist government and tacit alignment with Russia means this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. A softer option would be to move various operations and staff to different Commonwealth capitals such as Johannesburg, Dhaka, or Kingston.

A second opportunity for reform is trade. The UK is supposedly a champion of free trade but has failed to plug the trade gap caused by Brexit. British exporters have lost their largest market, and imports are beset by paperwork and delays, while the UK’s location means fresh food and ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing still depends primarily on European supply chains.

A key question for the UK is what it has to offer Commonwealth countries and overseas territories, many of which now rely on China for investment and trade, and Russia for raw materials and weapons

But there is no reason why trade in other areas – from accountancy to refrigerators – could not draw on innovative and growing economies such as India, Canada, and Rwanda. Rather than relying solely on bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) the UK could aspire to become an ‘activist’ member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which intentionally tries to recruit new members. The World Trade Organization (WTO) remains in stasis and many countries want to diversify their imports away from China and Russia.

Valued connections to Britain

A third area is migration which can be an effective geopolitical tool. The UK offer to Hong Kong BNO holders was not only a meaningful counter to Beijing’s political crackdown, but also stimulates the British economy with young, talented, and ambitious individuals from a city which values its connection to Britain. The openness of British communities to Ukrainian migrants, held up only by the UK’s Home Office incompetence, is also notable.

As an EU member, UK immigration policy favoured Europeans over Commonwealth citizens but Britain arguably owes far more to citizens in former colonies. A Commonwealth and Overseas Territories visa to make it easier for individuals to visit, study, and work in the UK would help plug the post-Brexit skills gap and improve strained relations with key partners.

Has the sun set on Britain’s Commonwealth relationship? 2nd part

Lastly, money matters. The UK diplomatic service, foreign aid, and other soft power assets such as the British Council have all suffered severe funding cuts at a time when ‘Global Britain’ is supposedly looking for new partnerships beyond the EU.

The new focus on investment partnerships is insufficiently targeted. If the UK government is serious about creating a ‘network of liberty’ and healing old wounds, funding must reflect the UK’s foreign policy and development priorities, not just profitability for private investors.

The Commonwealth has several different potential futures, some of which could be enormously promising for a less anchored but more geopolitically flexible Britain. But in its current iteration, it is a far cry from achieving the ‘progress and prosperity of all’ contained within its royal charter.