Friday, 24 July 2009

Commonwealth - wot ?

Some fuss in the news today about the anniversary of the Commonwealth. It is from 1949, following Indian independence, that the modern new-look Commonwealth – the “Commonwealth Of Nations’ rather than the ‘British Commonwealth’ dates.

I have to confess that I struggle with the idea of the Commonwealth.

The PR spin of the Commonwealth would suggest that it is part multi-cultural jamboree and part the United Nations without all the arguments and those awkward problematic countries.

In reality the Commonwealth is a mechanism that allows a small island off the mainland of Europe to continue to punch above its weight on a global stage. Whereas the British Empire painted a large part of the atlas red by the use of gunboats and district commissioners it now does it more subtly with diplomacy and cultural influence. Or on occasion, with an iron fist in the velvet glove when the ‘constitutional’ role of the monarch is used to shape political events - as it was in Australia in 1975.

Of course there is more to it than that, the Commonwealth was driven by all sort of other factors: It managed to preserve some of the jobs for the otherwise redundant imperial functionaries. It assured that the royal family had an itinerary of places to go on holiday cruises (state visits). It gave Britain the opportunity to win medals at the Commonwealth Games in events that otherwise we would have had no chance in at the Olympics.

But most importantly when the British Empire was being dismantled in a wave of national liberation movements after the Second World War it gave a vehicle for assimilating some of the more moderate nationalist leaders into the establishment.

I am at a loss as to why such a wildly inappropriate name as ‘Commonwealth’ was chosen though. The Commonwealth – the real original seventeenth century one – was a glorious period of radicalism when the old order was turned upside down and we actually had, for all too short a time, a republic and a constitution. Even during the Second World War, a radical party - influenced by Christian Socialism, in some ways to the left of Labour - took the name of the ‘Common Wealth Party’.

Wintson Churchill, reactionary old git though he may have been, did at least know his British history and argued that because of these radical associations the name of Commonwealth was not an appropriate one for The British Empire Version 2.1. Incidentally he was similarly outraged when a warship and a type of tank were named after Cromwell…

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