Compared to national days, Coronation Day, even Jubilees, Commonwealth Day is a footnote in the public calendar, not even present in the most thorough diaries that one might hope to pick up from their local stationary shop. This is all the more curious given how important the day once was. In the UK, before it was rightly renamed Commonwealth Day in 1958, Empire Day attracted crowds in the tens of thousands. In 1924, as many as 140,000 people flocked to the newly built Wembley stadium in forty-seven specially organised trains to celebrate.
Where did Commonwealth Day go? And what have we lost in the process? It can often appear as if the Commonwealth has receded from our collective political imagination. The Commonwealth connections celebrated in the years of Empire Day were physical ones – the Union Jack on the flags of Commonwealth nations, a naval presence in far-flung oceans, relatives and friends stationed abroad. As the physical presence of the Commonwealth disappeared, and as the memory of Commonwealth comradeship in both World Wars faded, Commonwealth Day appears like a lost relic of the past, without purpose.
The 21st-century Commonwealth Day, then, requires redefinition, and needs imbuing with a modern understanding of what the Commonwealth should mean. As always, the current status of Commonwealth Day is both a challenge and an opportunity. Commonwealth ties seem less tangible than ever; enthusing civil society and young people enthused about our family of nations will require serious work to transcend the existing apathy. This challenge is also an opportunity, giving organisations have substantial agency to conceptualise the role of the Commonwealth in popular culture, and in the minds of the next generation.
The theme of this year’s Commonwealth Day is ‘forging a sustainable and peaceful common future’. For advocates of the Commonwealth, this should be a starting point for reflection about the common future that we ought to be presenting when civil society and educational institutions celebrate Commonwealth Day. The emphasis, rightly, is on what a ‘common future’ might look like, accepting the premise that the Commonwealth demands of us renewed and forward-facing commitments to our family of nations. To answer it requires our societies to understand the commonalities, and in particular, the similarities in the way our cultures and societies approach the world.
The key here is to recognise that our shared historical inheritance has delivered shared values that allow us to think about common priorities. Commonwealth nations have a unique intellectual heritage that other multinational organisations lack. Unlike organisations such as the EU, or the African Union, the Commonwealth’s connections are not based on geography, but by a political, social, and institutional connection spanning continents which has imbued every nation – from Nigeria to India to the UK – compatible political values, laws, and constitutions. These go hand in hand. The overriding commitments of our constitution are towards the alliance of democracy and the rule of law.
Across the Commonwealth, shared legal history, and shared parliamentary institutions, have created a context in which citizens can thrive. Courts built on the heritage of common law adapt to rapidly changing nations and their evolving political cultures, safeguarding human rights while maintaining the flexibility to survive in crises. A political culture based on Parliaments rather than overbearing executive authority has enabled peaceful transitions of power, protecting citizens and businesses against the instability seen in other nations. The record of Commonwealth nations speaks for themselves. Commonwealth nations, in every continent, are the strongest and healthiest democracies . When we talk about a common future, this alliance of peaceful transitions of power, representative government, and respect for the rule of law out of which rights can be protected should be at the heart of our thinking.
This, more than anything else, underpins the message that this Commonwealth Day should seek to embody. We remain in an alliance of countries with a shared history, for good or ill, who value democracy and the rule of law, and the freedoms that naturally flow from it – and we must look towards a common future where those core Commonwealth values are shared the world over. The ‘sustainable and peaceful common future’ we are asked to envision can best be understood emerging from the rich loam of common values. Only by emphasising our commonalities, and the very real impact of sustainability, peace, and freedom which the Commonwealth ought to place at the centre of a 21st century vision, can we restore Commonwealth Day to its rightful place as a key date in the public calendar.