A commonwealth rising from the ashes of empire was not an ignoble concept. Except that it didn’t happen. And now, never will. Commonwealth evokes republicanism, fairness and justice – a far cry from an assemblage of grossly unequal countries with a monarch at its head. That such an entity should have come through all the bitter freedom and independence struggles and bloody liberation movements, is a remarkable tribute to the metamorphoses of imperialism.
What Commonwealth (OED definition: public welfare, general good; a body in which the whole people have a voice or an interest) might have meant after the dissolution of empire is another story. For if a unity of some of the richest and the poorest countries on earth had led to an even modest pooling of resources, had evolved into a solemn effort towards the common weal, a shared prosperity, what an amazing endeavour this might have become! What an inspiring example of equity, tolerance and freedom! As it is, the Commonwealth, in the sun-drenched melancholy of the Heads of Government meeting in London, despite its clamorous commitment to cleansing the oceans of plastic, eradicating malaria, resisting climate change and ensuring ‘security’ (of all kinds except economic), was stalked by the long ideological shadows of empire.
It was not simply that it endorsed the succession of Prince Charles as its next Head, following the Queen’s ‘sincere wish’. It was also haunted by the scandal of the so-called ‘Windrush’ generation – the fate of elderly migrants from the Caribbean who came to Britain as British subjects on their parents’ passports in the 1950s, and who, under Theresa May’s boast that she would create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants, find themselves thrown out of work, denied health care and threatened with deportation. Many of them had never returned to the Caribbean since the age of eight or ten. The current Home Secretary had also declared that she would increase the number of ‘removals’, diverting money for fighting crime towards ‘hunting down’ illegals. In her speech of contrition for this ‘mistake’, Theresa May stated ‘These people are part of us.’ The significant words are ‘these people’ – in the treacherous semaphore of political English, the simple demonstrative adjective tells another – and racist – story.
To have mutated from empire into commonwealth, avoiding the subject of inequality, is a considerable achievement. The passage of captive countries from colonial bondage into a modernised dependency has been achieved beneath the ubiquitous erection of shopping malls, highways, skyscrapers and airports, so that a superficial resemblance masks the unevenness of ‘development’. Garish imagery gives an impression of modernisation and progress when set against the faded sepia photographs of big-game hunters, darbars, missionary schools and imperial cavalcades
Imperial echoes were also wafted back on the breeze in the perfunctory mention by the Prime Minister that ‘same-sex relationships’ would also be addressed. Thirty six out of the fifty three countries in the Commonwealth criminalize gay relationships, some with very severe penalties. Certain Commonwealth leaders have accused Britain of ‘colonialism’, when they came under pressure to modify such legislation. The supreme irony is that these laws were a product of the Victorian sensibility, forced upon territories which had no such prohibition before the arrival of imperialists. Frozen colonial attitudes, hardened and internalised by independent countries, represent an ossified souvenir of dominance; when in the original imperial power, these have passed into history.
To have mutated from empire into commonwealth, avoiding the subject of inequality, is a considerable achievement. The passage of captive countries from colonial bondage into a modernised dependency has been achieved beneath the ubiquitous erection of shopping malls, highways, skyscrapers and airports, so that a superficial resemblance masks the unevenness of ‘development’. Garish imagery gives an impression of modernisation and progress when set against the faded sepia photographs of big-game hunters, darbars, missionary schools and imperial cavalcades.
The only thing never mentioned in relation to the Commonwealth is the differential in income between them: like indigent aristocrats living off small fixed income, it is considered improper to dwell upon the vast disparity in living standards, life expectancy and health care of the peoples comprising this loose and ill-assorted collection of countries.
How different it could have been, if the resolve had existed to take the idea literally, to use the institution as a mechanism for global distributive justice. But this was impossible in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when former freedom-fighters, once branded as terrorists and murderers, were transformed into statesmen by the bestowal of freedoms which, in reality, were never more than partial and conditional upon emancipation being crushed, suborned or deformed into the caricatures we see today.
The recovery of the idea of commonwealth has a vibrant urgency....The idea of commonwealth remains a project for reclamation by alternative movements engaged in battles against a brutal globalism – the restoration of autonomy, the re-animation of self-determination, reparations for imperial extraction, the restitution of the rights of the poor.
This is why events like the Commonwealth games remain multi-cultural celebrations, pageants of diversity, a demonstration of the richness and vitality of the world’s cultures; a serviceable distraction from a more compelling global project. We will have none of that, amid the plumes, the national costumes (often expensively designer-modified for the occasion), the traditional dress, the dances and rituals, the picturesque precipitate of vanished and vanquished life-ways, revived as spectacle and entertainment for a globalised world.
The ceremony and display erase any other meaning of commonwealth. There must be no drawing of attention to the better world this one might have been, had not the prevention of its existence been the primary purpose of this parade of residual cultures.
In Britain, the idea of ‘commonwealth’ has been rehabilitated in recent years, principally because of the venerability of the commitment of the Queen to an archaic idea of duty, which appears even more antiquated in this age of Trumpery and Brexitism. Piety about the coming together of such diverse peoples, from the mighty nation of India to the tiny islands of the Pacific, transcending racial, religious and ethnic differences, is offered as a great celebration of global harmony. The only diversity NOT celebrated is the most glaring one of all – that of rich and poor.
This is perhaps the greatest error of the cynical and disabused inheritors of empire. The commonwealth exemplifies savage injustices, not only between countries, but within them, the coincidence of interests between ruling castes everywhere and their conspiratorial disdain for the poor majority.
And yet, far from being pure theatre, recovery of the idea of commonwealth has a vibrant urgency, not only in the random collection of bits of the earth carved up by the last imperial power but one, and coloured with the fair-and-lovely complexion of dominance on the map, but the relationship between the haves and have-nots in the new global dispensation. The idea of commonwealth remains, a project for reclamation by alternative movements engaged in battles against a brutal globalism – the restoration of autonomy, the re-animation of self-determination, reparations for imperial extraction, the restitution of the rights of the poor. Commonwealth might become the watchword of a rescue mission, for it speaks of security and sufficiency, of the abatement of the florid excesses of wealth and relief from the skeletal spectres of want, a world spoiled by the twin scourges of superfluity and grinding indigence. It might speak of a longing for a better world, which the word commonwealth both mocks and represents at the same time.
The imperishable bonds of commonwealth link Singapore (per capita income $90,000 a year), Australia (per capita income $49,000 a year), Canada ($48,000) United Kingdom ($43, 500) with India (per capita income $7,200), Bangladesh ($4,200) and Uganda, Tanzania, Nepal and Mozambique (with $3,000 a year or less). * These illustrate the non-economic purpose of this strange alliance, a reproach to global injustice when it might represent a best hope for a remedy; a stasis unlikely to be disturbed by the artful choreography of political incoherence promoted in London.
*These approximate totals are contested, representing ‘purchasing power’ according to the dollar, rather than actual income.
(Jeremy Seabrook is an author and columnist who lives in London. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)