The Commonwealth: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
It is an organization formally headed by a Monarch that does not serve as Head of State for the majority of its members, but who has been – and continues to be – replaced as Head of State in countries which continue to accept their role as Head of Commonwealth.
It is an organization, founded upon the remnants of an Empire, which not only survives in an age of vocal anti-Imperial sentiment, but adds new members who had been colonies of other European powers.
It is a focal point of coordination for dozens of civil society organizations and charities that subsist more on the work and dedication of volunteers than large dispensations from governments, and who have been more successful in that work than many of their peers. Indeed, other comparable organizations that comprise the “alumni” of other empires have spent an enormous amount of money on replicating the ‘Commonwealth Network.’
In short, the Commonwealth surviving and thriving in 2023 makes very little sense – and yet it has and it does.
If one spends enough time ruminating over the history of the Commonwealth and the Empire that preceded it, you are left with the strong sense that the difference between these institutions and their peers, the thing that sustains this paradox, can be summed up in one word – potential.
The potential I speak of is the potential to transform oneself and one’s surroundings and circumstances. To hope and to be more than one is. On this point, the British Empire may have been unique for its setting of such expectations. That may very well be because the concept of Britishness did something that other nationalities did not during the Imperial age – despite its flaws, it became less about tribalism and more about a civic identity.
One cannot transcend their biology or their genetics, so an identity based on those attributes becomes an insurmountable barrier. A civic identity, forged in relation to institutions, ideas, and shared values, is an entirely different affair.
In February of 2011, the BBC reported on the efforts of the Dalit community in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, who had erected a small statue in Banka village – a bronze statue modelled after the Statue of Liberty and dedicated to a new Goddess – the Dalit Goddess of English.
To be clear, it was not the Goddess of “the English”, but English - the language.
The article describes the statue as follows:
"She holds a pen in her right hand which shows she is literate. She is dressed well and sports a huge hat - it's a symbol of defiance that she is rejecting the old traditional dress code…In her left hand, she holds a book which is the constitution of India which gave Dalits equal rights. She stands on top of a computer which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free for ever."
Dalits (previously referred to as ‘untouchable’) embraced English as the means to transform their prospects and escape their circumstances. Writer Chandra Bhan Prasad, who spearheaded the erection of the statue, quoted the Dalit thinker and architect of the Indian Constitution Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar who had said that English was “the milk of a lioness” and that “one who drinks it will roar.”
For these Dalits, the English language holds the promise of allowing them to transcend their circumstances, to self-actualize. Concealed in that fact is the secret to how the British Empire succeeded where others failed, and why the Commonwealth remains so valued in a post-imperial world.
The British Empire succeeded because it created an expectation of transformation and growth through the adopting of linguistic and cultural practices.
Late British rule had begun to evolve to a point where the expectation was that you could retain who you were – Scottish, Irish, Quebecois, Maori, Xhosa, or Hindi – but be British in the civic-political sense. That was the promise – the preservation of local identity and custom within a polity run on the English Common Law and Westminster Parliamentary rule, and the promise that one could rise from their current station in life.
The British Empire outlasted its peers because of that promise. It collapsed, in no small part, because of its inevitable failure to deliver upon it.
Whether we care to admit it or not, the legacy of the British Empire is not one of pink bits on a map or the tales of the exploits of adventurers. The lasting legacy is the embedding of concepts and customs that speak to a way of governing, a way of administering justice, of arbitrating differences between disparate groups within the whole, and the concept that absolute power is not absolute.
Dating back to the American Revolution, every decolonization effort within the British Empire had, at its core, the popular view that ‘natural born rights’ were not being respected or upheld. Dominions such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand remained because of the enlightened understanding that reforms to better achieve those rights were needed. And where those reforms could not, or did not happen, those nations independent of the British Empire still grapple with the issue of whether or not those who hold power respect democratic rights and the rule of law.
Regardless of who we are, where we were born, or how we identify ourselves, the legacy of the British Empire remains with us and expresses itself every time we feel that it is our right to be respected by our government, that we have a right to vote on our leaders, that we should be protected by a constitution – written or unwritten – and that no person of any station is above those precepts. The great-grandchildren of those who fought to leave the Empire are no less reticent to oppose anti-democratic rule at home today, and for the same reasons – the failure of those in authority to ‘walk the talk.’
This may be the core reason why the Commonwealth continues today – despite an environment where colonial legacies are increasingly controversial. The controversy was in the ruling, not the rules. It was not in the principles, but in the perceived hypocrisy in their application. In the days of Empire, the hypocrisy came from Whitehall. In the post-Imperial era the hypocrisy, where it exists, is much closer to home.
But despite the hypocrisy and the falling short of standards, those standards still mean something. They still drive people to aspire to do more, to be more.
It may be the genius of the modern Commonwealth that it jettisoned the hypocritical aspects of imperial rule while retaining the aspirational and high-minded ideals – the concept of a family of nations, drawn together in common cause for mutual support and betterment, and the idea that regardless of size or power, each has a seat at the table and a voice that deserves to be heard.
But the future of the Commonwealth, like its predecessor, is not assured. It, too, must “walk the talk.” It needs to be accountable to its members and be a value-added organization. In a grouping that encompasses countries that vary wildly in size and scope, this is not an easy proposition. An enhanced organization that seeks a more assertive agenda risks alienating some members. Conversely, a Commonwealth that maintains a minimalist approach risks the fate of “being all things to all people”, which inevitably leads to becoming nothing to anyone.
The Commonwealth in 2023, in many ways, finds itself in the same situation as the British Empire a century ago – living up to a standard that is interpreted by different people in a manner of different ways. Is there a will to change and reform? If so, in what way?
Does the Commonwealth continue on its current path, as a forum for members and a technical support where needed? Does it resolve to become more active in the realms of trade and security? Does it find a way of evolving new and different mechanisms to achieve both ends while preserving the unity of the whole?
Which brings us back to that word – potential.
If the Commonwealth is to fulfill its potential in the eyes of its members, it needs to harness the passion, energy and imagination of those with an eye to the future. It requires a strain of scholarship that acknowledges the past without being trapped in it. What is needed is no less than a bifurcation between Imperial and Commonwealth Studies, to divide the study of what was from what is and what may come. Planning the future while ignoring history is a dangerous folly, but the future cannot – and will not - be envisioned through the constant relitigating of the past. There is a place for intensely studying the events that led us to where we are, but that is the purview of historians. We also need a scholarship that looks at the world as it is and investigates where it can go in the years to come.
As much as the Commonwealth needs leaders with vision, it also needs a body of scholarship that is commensurate with that challenge – a new generation of academics, researchers and commentators who are prepared to do the heavy lifting and chart a path for the organization to evolve and grow in relevance.
If the Commonwealth is to fulfill its potential, we need those who can reveal it to come forward and take their place. Brent Cameron is a Canadian writer and researcher whose 2005 book “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade” outlined many of the themes that would become part of the CANZUK concept. Formerly a Research Associate with SES Canada Research (now Nanos Research), and an assistant to a member of the Ontario Legislature, he is a Trade Policy Advisor with Toronto-based Concierge Strategies, as well as a member of the board of CANZUK International. From 2014 to 2022 he was elected as a Councillor in the eastern Ontario municipality of Central Frontenac, serving as its Deputy Mayor in 2017.