When Joseph Muscat, Malta’s Labour Prime Minister, attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2013, he expected ‘a condescending approach by… the British’. To his surprise, he found nothing of the sort. ‘I am glad to say, I was wrong… they do not see the Commonwealth as “their” thing. They are aware of the history, but keener on developing the future than reminiscing about the past.’
It is easy to see why at first glance, the Commonwealth may seem like an imperial relic. But this impression could not be further from the truth. In fact, the Commonwealth was founded precisely to acknowledge and enable decolonisation—the end of Empire, and the birth of a new era of co-operation between equal and sovereign states.
Progressives around the world were among those who fought long and hard for decolonisation, and we have every reason to embrace the Commonwealth proudly as a symbol of the success of those efforts.
But the process set in train by decolonisation is far from complete. The world is still blighted by inequality and injustice. This is a time not for nostalgia, but for new, creative solutions to the problems we face.
In recent years, there has been a wave of proposals for new processes of Commonwealth integration, from trade and migration agreements to the creation of a Commonwealth Assembly. These proposals seek to build on cultural, linguistic and institutional links between member states, at a time when geographical proximity matters less than ever. By complementing, rather than replacing, membership in organisations like SAARC, ASEAN, and CARICOM, proposals for a renewed Commonwealth aim to enhance the prosperity and influence of member states, without eroding their sovereignty.
Britain’s exit from the European Union presents an important opportunity to reignite the conversation about what a renewed Commonwealth can do for its members. Many on the British left feel anxiety about a rise in nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments. This is a crucial moment to resist the tendency to look inwards, and instead to press for a more interconnected and solidaristic world order.
Indeed, as a grouping which bridges the gap between countries small and large, developed and developing, the Commonwealth is ideally placed to address some of the gravest challenges of this century. With the end of the Cold War balance of power and the rise of new great powers, it is more important than ever for small countries to build strong networks to ensure their voice is heard. For developing countries in particular, the ecological and geopolitical challenges to come will require an unprecedented level of international co-operation.
Thus while in the 20th century, the Commonwealth stood for the end of an era, in the 21st century, it can instead become a constructive symbol of a new, pluralistic and multipolar world, in which all countries have a voice.
Commonwealth integration and renewal is therefore a profoundly progressive project. To empower and give voice to small countries around the world, and to work together to bring an end to poverty and underdevelopment, is to continue the proud legacy of decolonisation. For progressives in the developed Commonwealth countries, these proposals are not only a way to collaborate more closely with our counterparts in less developed countries; they are also a chance to renew our own societies, placing us firmly within positive global efforts to construct a multipolar world based on co-operation and mutual respect.
Today, we are witnessing profound changes in the relationship between citizens and international organisations. Individuals expect more of their governments, but also of international agencies. While in the past, these organisations operated intergovernmentally, with little democratic input, this is no longer sufficient. Instead, citizens want a say in the international organisations which represent them, and in the identities they take on or shed when their country joins or leaves a grouping.
As a network still in an embryonic state, the Commonwealth presents an unprecedented opportunity to involve individuals in shaping the future not only of the network, but of what it means to be a Commonwealth citizen. The groundswell of popular support for free movement among developed Commonwealth countries is just one example of this. A progressive project of Commonwealth integration must be driven by ordinary people as well as governments, while recognising a plurality of voices and circumstances.
For too long, enthusiasm about the Commonwealth has been seen as the preserve of Conservatives. The time has never been better for centre-left parties across the world to articulate our own vision for a renewed and reimagined Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth represents the very best of what progressives fought for and achieved in the last century: the birth of the United Nations and the spread of sovereignty and self-determination throughout the world. Today, it can represent the best of what we can and must achieve in this century: a more equal, just, and sustainable world for all.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society