Redefine the Commonwealth now to safeguard its future

Although seen as one of the Queen’s greatest legacies, the Commonwealth must provide tangible benefits to its citizens in an era of geopolitical competition.

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David Lawrence

Former Research Fellow, UK in the World Programme

The Commonwealth’s breadth allows a wide diversity of countries of different sizes, geographies, cultures, and values to be members – it is both rich and poor, north and south, and ethnically diverse. This makes it more interesting than many other multilateral institutions such as the G7, NATO, and the European Union (EU).

But it suffers from an unclear purpose. Since its inception, successive UK governments have grappled with its role – whether it is a preferential trading bloc or merely a source of most of Britain’s post-war immigration.

This lack of purpose – and structure – has left the Commonwealth impotent in dealing with a host of bilateral difficulties between the UK, its overseas territories, and Commonwealth partners in recent years.

Brexit could induce Britain to re-prioritize the Commonwealth, but so far the UK has only signed two new trade deals with Commonwealth members – Australia and New Zealand – while development aid, one of the most tangible ways the UK worked with many Commonwealth countries, has been cut and the UK’s defence focus has pivoted towards the Indo-Pacific and Europe’s Eastern front.

The UK and its allies may find that diplomatic efforts – such as condemning China or Russia for human rights abuses – are more successful if they have listened to and acted on fellow Commonwealth countries’ concerns

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

At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Boris Johnson reportedly attempted to depose Baroness Scotland, the Commonwealth’s Secretary General, but suffered a humiliating defeat in a vote of Commonwealth members.

These challenges are likely to continue, especially in the wake of the death of HM The Queen which could be seen by republican movements as an opportune time to rally support. Australia and New Zealand’s leaders, both republicans, downplayed the idea of a poll on the monarchy immediately after the Queen’s death, but it would be a mistake to assume this has gone quiet forever. Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister has already said there will be a referendum on becoming a republic within three years.

Defining a new vision for the future

A concrete vision for the Commonwealth is long overdue and there is no better time to cast one than now. HM The Queen was more than just a figurehead for the Commonwealth and it remains unknown exactly what role King Charles III will see for himself.

But, unlike his mother who was a young, modern Queen heralding a post-imperial future, Charles takes the throne at a later age and at a time when important questions need to be addressed in an increasingly fractured world.

Most importantly the UK should avoid the temptation to define the Commonwealth in terms of shared principles and values. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh all abstained on the United Nations (UN) motion condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Commonwealth members are likely to be similarly divided over China’s territorial claims, the US-China conflict, the net-zero agenda, and nuclear non-proliferation.

The Commonwealth’s breadth – its greatest strength – means consensus is often impossible, and so should not be the goal. Instead the Commonwealth should focus on tangible areas of cooperation where there is mutual interest such as trade, aid, and migration.

Brexit could induce Britain to re-prioritize the Commonwealth, but so far the UK has only signed two new trade deals with Commonwealth members – Australia and New Zealand

The UK and its allies may find that diplomatic efforts – such as condemning China or Russia for human rights abuses – are more successful if they have listened to and acted on fellow Commonwealth countries’ concerns, from post-COVID vaccine provision to climate financing. Boosting the aid budget and opening borders may prove more important in engaging developing country partners than traditional diplomatic avenues.

Liz Truss’s British International Investment project could be a valuable vehicle for financing, especially if it leverages private sector funding, but many Commonwealth countries are feeling the more immediate impact of the UK’s aid cuts. In these circumstances many have already turned to Chinese infrastructure financing.

This is where the Commonwealth could be valuable. In the Pacific, it links certain island nations to the UK, Australia, and New Zealand at a time of renewed geopolitical competition with China in the Pacific. The fact the Commonwealth is not explicitly about promoting a particular ideology or countering China is helpful.

Commonwealth should be less UK-centric

There is also no reason why all the Commonwealth operations need to be based in London, which is not only expensive but also reinforces an approach to governance that assumes everything must be decided by civil servants in London. As the world’s largest democracy, India is an obvious alternative candidate although its reluctance to condemn Russia’s invasion and its domestic political tensions may count against it.

It is also important the Commonwealth’s wealthier members – the UK, Canada, and Australia – provide financing for countries such as India to take on extra responsibilities. The Commonwealth Games is a good place to start – despite having 72 competing nations and territories, the games have only been held three times outside the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Commonwealth also needs to be forward-looking and one of its most exciting assets is its demographic youthfulness. Europe, China, and the US have ageing populations whereas Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh have some of the world’s largest young populations.

Redefine the Commonwealth now to safeguard its future 2nd part

The Commonwealth should become more about the future innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders currently growing up in Lagos, Lahore, and Kuala Lumpur, and many of them would love to study in Britain, work in Canada, or found a start-up in Mumbai’s tech scene.

A Commonwealth visa could be a key step in encouraging this as something to offer young Brits who can no longer work, study and travel in Europe as freely as before, and to young people across the Commonwealth. It would improve Britain’s soft power offering and potentially smooth the way to more formalized trading arrangements with growing economies – particularly India, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Bangladesh.

The death of HM The Queen reminds Commonwealth countries of a shared history and familial ties to Britain – but it cannot be assumed this feeling of goodwill will last forever. If the Commonwealth is to survive, thrive and to live up to its name, the UK must act now to ensure it provides tangible benefits to its citizens.