Who thought up the title Commonwealth for the remnant of Britain’s empire? Its earliest meaning is welfare, the common good. Now it is a club of countries, mainly – but no longer exclusively – those which were once British possessions. Allowing Mozambique and Rwanda, former Portuguese and French possessions, to join the club ended the exclusive UK connection. It includes Canada and Australia, where the English and French speaking immigrants soon out-manoeuvred or out-gunned the indigenous inhabitants. India has the longest ties to Britain and the largest population. 18 African countries are members. There are two missing countries, the United States of America, the first one to break away from British rule. The second is Burma.
Common wealth it is not. According to the UN figures the per capita gross domestic product of Britain is $40,026, the richest country. The poorest is Malawi at $342 but that may be exceeded by South Sudan when it joins, currently it is at $223 a year for each South Sudanese. The Commonwealth – the direct descendent of the British empire – is not a community of equals.
In its heyday the Empire was more than 100 times the size of Britain but two world wars left it drained and impoverished. I was born four years after the Second World War but I had a food and clothing ration card as a child. The war also opened the eyes of its “subjects” throughout the world. Many were recruited to fight for Britain in other parts of the world and they saw British soldiers die. They learned that the empire was not invincible and the mother country was bankrupt. The mood in many of its colonies and overseas possessions was for freedom and independence. And the United States made it clear that the price of aid to rebuild Britain after 1945 was the dismantling of Britain’s global empire.
So the Commonwealth was created with Queen Elizabeth’s father at its head. At its worst, the Commonwealth can be seen as a good excuse for presidents and prime ministers from 52 countries to come to London to chat with each other and go shopping with their consorts. At its best, it can make connections and introductions that make the world go round a little more smoothly. It organises quiet conferences and meetings of experts on global problems and long term issues that affect countries that cannot get their voices heard in other global fora. The Queen cares deeply about her role as the head of the Commonwealth and today she asked – ever so politely – that her son Charles should succeed her. Some people were hoping that it might skip a generation. I have always been impressed with the way she engages with those she meets. Yes she says endlessly “And what do you do?” but she goes the extra mile for the Commonwealth and clearly enjoys meeting people from all of the world. When she went to Uganda, the 20 mile road from the airport was lined with cheering crowds all the way, despite the rain. Whether the Royal Family can provide another monarch who has those qualities is still not clear.
The Commonwealth’s finest hours came in 1949 when South Africa was forced out of the Commonwealth (although Britain tried to keep it in) when the Afrikaners came to power and implemented Apartheid – a doctrine that was fundamentally opposed by all the other newly independent states. South Africa was on the agenda again at the 1985 Commonwealth Conference held in London. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried to block sanctions on the white minority government in South Africa. In this she stood alone (even the US passed an anti Apartheid Bill). She opposed sanctions on South Africa because she believed primarily in creating wealth and saw this as destructive. She called the African National Congress a “typical terrorist organisation” and Communists. It seemed that the Commonwealth might split. Some of its members suggested expelling Britain. In the end the division resulted in a two track approach to South Africa. Mrs Thatcher opposed sanctions but urged President de Klerk to reform while the rest of the Commonwealth – and some members of the British government – demanded sanctions and more pressure from Britain on the Afrikaner National Party. Nelson Mandela clearly supported sanctions and, when he finally came to London after his release, he snubbed Mrs Thatcher’s invitation to Downing Street.
The third dramatic period that involved the Commonwealth happened during the 1995 Conference when Sani Abachi, the military ruler of Nigeria, hanged the writer and agitator Ken Saro Wiwa with other opponents of his regime. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth until a new regime took over in Nigeria in 1999. This was particularly embarrassing because the Secretary General at the time, Chief Emeka Anyaouku, was a distinguished Nigerian.
Perhaps we are now looking at a fourth eruption. When she was at the Home Office Prime Minister Theresa May, it seems, initiated the tracking down of ‘illegal immigrants’ and overseeing their deportation – even though they may have lived here for their entire lives. This dates back to the arrival of people from the Caribbean in 1954 to provide cheap labour for rebuild bombed out broken Britain. The Windrush generation have now been targeted and some have been expelled. But it now transpires that many were never given identity papers and came without passports. They were never asked to register. This should raise another – utterly avoidable – storm at the Commonwealth meeting. Let’s hope so.