Written by Thomas Roberts.
Britain does not really understand the Commonwealth. We are not taught about it, we are not encouraged to question it and we see it very rarely. For many of us it exists solely as a sporting contest – something to focus on every four years whilst we wait for the World Cup.
This lack of understanding is both endemic and problematic. As Brexit unfurls and Britain begins to reckon with its place on the international stage the Commonwealth is used as both a blanket and a band-aid. The foreign office brims with dreams of Empire 2.0, full of pomp and circumstance and ready to resume its “rightful place” as the saviour of Africa and Asia.
However, if you wish to truly understand how Britain sees the Commonwealth then look no further than the office of our most senior diplomat. Travel back in time to 2002 and Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson is dismissing the Commonwealth as a source of “flag-waving p*******” for the queen”; move forward to this March and he is telling the Express that the Commonwealth has a “key role” in the “bright future of Britain;” a month later and Johnson is suggesting the Commonwealth is not a priority.
Within a fortnight of the Brexit vote, Sajid Javid was in India talking about a “stronger and stronger” relationship. Five days ago, the Indian Government confirmed that they were in no rush to sign a trade deal.
Whilst at first these statements feel inconsistent and fundamentally incompatible, they reveal the reality of Britain’s perceptions: a racist impression of a world that needs us so desperately we can afford to be fickle. The idea of other nations as operating at the whims of Britain has a long history in British politics. The famous sentence that begins “We shall fight on the beaches…” ends with Churchill proclaiming that if Britain is conquered the Empire will rise and “liberate the Old world.” The hypocrisy of this idea of liberation is never addressed.
Which is where the Commonwealth becomes relevant to Modern Britain. Although many across the UK understand the power of economies in South Asia there is still a remaining sense of Britain’s dominance. To many it is not the Commonwealth of Nations, but still the British Commonwealth. It is telling that a Conservative MP felt free to measure the performance of the British Empire at the Olympics whilst praising our “Commonwealth Friends.” Britain still feels an ownership over the Commonwealth and this makes it relevant to our current geopolitics.
Within a fortnight of the Brexit vote, Sajid Javid was in India talking about a “stronger and stronger” relationship. This was taken without any comment from India as a sign of Britain’s new, global politics. Five days ago, the Indian Government confirmed that they were in no rush to sign a trade deal. Two days ago, the United News of India published positive news about an EU-Indian trade deal.
This stands in stark contrast to the 2015 election, where Tory elements were busy slamming India’s space programme as proof that “our foreign aid” was being irresponsibly thrown to an ungrateful population.
Talk of “intensifying trade” with Bangladesh and Pakistan is presented without critique or context and certainly without any comment from the countries involved. The Commonwealth have clearly been waiting, begging for Britain to return and carry the “white man’s burden” once more.
This view of the Commonwealth is intensely patriarchal, reeks of colonialism and demonstrates why Empire 2.0 has such an appeal to Britons. The slow shift from Empire to Commonwealth allows the UK to cover its sins in the pageantry of the Commonwealth games. “How bad could it have been if we still play sports?”
As history becomes more and more perverted to justify our current politics, the Commonwealth has never been more relevant. It allows our politicians to conjure forth an image of a Britain that never existed
Liam Fox, foolishly claimed that the UK is one of few nations who do not need to be ashamed of its 20th century history. Our history is littered with concentration camps, co-ordinated famines and racial, religious and LGBT+ persecution. Our prosperity is not built on “commonwealth” but on stolen wealth.
The Commonwealth helps politicians invoke the tropes of Empire without grappling with its horrors. They turn Britain into a vast global power again, with friends and allies across every single inhabited continent. We are told these nations share “our history” and yet how that history is perceived is vastly different. Winston Churchill is widely considered “one of the greatest Britons,” he gets an Oscar-winning biopic featuring Gary Oldman and yet, people are still alive who lost their families to his coordinated famine.
As history becomes more and more perverted to justify our current politics, the Commonwealth has never been more relevant. It allows our politicians to conjure forth an image of a Britain that never existed. They reshape the Empire not in its real form but in an imagined status as a promoter of “shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights, and the rule of law.” These are now taught in schools as “British Values” and contribute to an ever greater disconnect from our history and our perception across the world.
Thomas Roberts is a student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Nottingham. He is the Chair of the Beeston Central and Rylands Labour Party. His interest in Empire came from its absence in his education and its veneration in media. Image credit: CC by Foreign Office/Flickr.