The Commonwealth Is A Relic Of Empire; It’s Time To Be Rid Of It: Ekow Nelson

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In the aftermath of the incendiary interview by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry and the discombobulation visited on the UK Royal Family, I went back to this from nearly three years ago especially as the monarchy and the British press sought to use her speech to the Commonwealth a day before the interview as a crutch to prop up the royal institution

The Commonwealth is a relic of empire; it’s time to be rid of it
Ekow Nelson

Last month the Heads of 53 Commonwealth nations, carved out of the former British Empire, gathered in London for their biennial meeting. The purpose of the meeting, organised at great expense for many of its small and poor members was, however, lost on most people and left many of us asking why the Commonwealth even existed.

Far from being a strength, the much-trumpeted shared colonial history among its members (much of it terrible and exploitative) and common language (of the colonial master), confirm the continued existence of the Commonwealth as an anachronistic institution in the 21st century.

The making of the modern Commonwealth

The modern Commonwealth was born nearly 70 years ago when the London Declaration, drafted by the Indian diplomat V. K. Krishna Menon, changed the rules established by the other (less well-known) Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference of 1926. Back then, the United Kingdom and its six Dominions namely, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland and the Irish Free State, were recognised as autonomous and equal in stature with one another to collectively form the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’. They agreed that members were in “no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic and external affairs”; what held them together was their allegiance to the [British] Crown –the embodiment of the executive and judicial authority of the British State.

In 1948 when Ireland became a republic and severed links with the Crown, it naturally ceased to be part of the organisation. In truth, Ireland hadn’t been an active participant since the 1930s, but its departure was a portent of what would happen when the growing number of newly independent colonies adopted Republican constitutions.

At the Prime Minister’s conference in London in April 1949, ahead of India becoming a Republic, the rules of membership were altered largely at the behest of newly independent nations of the sub-continent. Allegiance to the Crown was dropped and a new role of the Head of the Commonwealth, as distinct from the British Monarch, was created.

Although the position of Head of the Commonwealth has since been held only by the current Queen of England and her father, the principle of separation of roles of Head of State for the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth, enabled India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to remain members became the cornerstone of the modern Commonwealth.

Her Majesty’s recently-expressed desire, however, to see her son the Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne as the next Head of the Commonwealth risks undermining the spirit of compromise reached all those years ago and raises once again, the issue of whether the Commonwealth is not just a relic of Empire.

Grudging admission of Asia and Africa to the Club

Canada set the precedent for independence within Empire (later Commonwealth) back in 1867. And in the post-war era when a wave of countries, beginning with India, gained their independence, it became almost de rigueur to seek self-government within the Commonwealth.

In the Gold Coast the Convention People’s Party (CPP) demanded in 1953 that “an Act of Independence be simultaneously passed by the United Kingdom Parliament and the Gold Coast Legislative Assembly declaring the Gold Coast to be, under the new name Ghana, a sovereign and independent state within the Commonwealth”.

As many countries hurtled towards independence, a British Government Cabinet Committee was set up to determine what status should be accorded those colonies who on attaining independence wanted to remain in the Commonwealth. Echoing the unease among the older, ‘White’ members of the Commonwealth, the Committee’s report concluded that the “admission of three Asiatic countries [India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka] to Commonwealth membership had altered the character of the Commonwealth, and there was great danger that Commonwealth membership would be further diluted if full membership had to be conceded to the Gold Coast and other countries in a comparable stage of development”.

The biggest concern for the UK government then, was the reaction of the Government of the Union of South Africa led by Prime Minister J.G (Hans) Strijdom who argued that the Gold Coast was under-developed and politically immature to be granted full independence with concurrent admission to the Commonwealth.

The then Prime Minister of the Gold Coast, however, rejected any suggestion of inferior status and threatened to leave the Commonwealth completely if Ghana was judged unfit for full membership. After all, the United States and more recent ex-colonies like Burma (now Myanmar) and majority of the Middle-Eastern protectorates did not join the Commonwealth after their independence.

In the end, Strijdom reluctantly accepted the decision to admit the Gold Coast, strongly supported by India, as a fait accompli. He was, however, prescient about its impact when he warned that “it would create a ‘dangerous’ position for [the white majority members] and an undesirable precedent [for Black majority rule in Southern Africa]”.

A platform for accelerating decolonisation

For, as Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and other ex-colonies in Africa followed Ghana, a critical mass of ex-colonies implacably opposed to White domination emerged to wield influence in the Commonwealth that was to hasten the decline of Empire. The likes of Kenneth Kaunda, Milton Obote, Kwame Nkrumah and successive Prime Ministers of India among others, used the platform the Commonwealth afforded them to goad, even harry, a reluctant United Kingdom into accelerating the process of decolonisation in former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.

African and Caribbean members of the Commonwealth played a critical role in mobilising the organisation to lend its support to the sporting boycott (formally endorsed by the Commonwealth in 1977), the imposition of limited sanctions at the Nassau Conference in 1985 (including the ban on the importation of Krugerrands which Margaret Thatcher mocked as a “tiny, tiny, tiny” concession) and finally the 1986 economic sanctions that ended Britain’s stone-walling and with that, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid.

An institution that has lost its way

With all that behind us now, what is the purpose of today’s Commonwealth? Its conferences, communiqués and pronouncements have no power or influence as they once did. It hasn’t the mandate of the United Nations, the economic clout of the World Bank or IMF, nor the trading muscle of the European Union. Many of its members have found a voice on other global and regional platforms that speak to their priorities.

As Prince Charles assumes the reins, reinforcing the Commonwealth’s reputation as a vestigial creature of Empire, it is perhaps time to revert to its 1926 charter and membership of Dominions who wish to continue with allegiance to the British Crown. This needn’t rupture the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth’s republican members who would seek to chart a new course.

It is time for countries like Ghana to redirect their energies towards more consequential associations, while at the same time renegotiating a different relationship with Britain, not based on the colonial past, but on terms that are responsive to their respective national interests.

The Commonwealth, a half-way house between colonialism and independence, has outlived its usefulness. And it’s time for its republican members to bid a final farewell to Empire and exit, in their own version of Brexit, Colexit.


May 2018