March 25, 2002

Crown Commonwealth

Recently the Commonwealth of Nations has been coming in for unaccustomed praise in Britain. Most of the media, whether establishment broadcasters or partisan papers, were lining up to berate inaction over Robert Mugabe's theft of the Zimbabwe election – but it wasn't to be. Responsibility for what to do was shunted off to three Commonwealth leaders (those of Nigeria, South Africa and Australia) and this carefully selected mix decided to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for a year. This might not seem especially fierce, but in the absence of some Commonwealth equivalent of a Brezhnev doctrine, mandating the rest to 'return' to democracy any state that strays, it was hot stuff, and thanks largely to that most excellent of men, John Howard.

Easily the most talented head of government in the Commonwealth, the achievements of the Australian PM are all the more remarkable for coming off the back of governing a country with the most PC press anywhere in the free world. Only a handful of small media outlets, such as Quadrant and Codex dissent from the elite liberalism of the ABC and The Australian. Their greatest project of the last few decades was the attempt to foist an Australian republic on an unwilling people, and Mr. Howard's greatest achievement was to beat them. In many ways, if you're right wing and British, it's a great pity that John Howard can't do what his greatest predecessor, Robert Menzies, considered doing, and become British Prime Minister. That he can't, illustrates where the Commonwealth has gone disastrously wrong in the last fifty years, and why, paradoxically, the failure of Britain (and of Australia, and Canada, and New Zealand too) to maintain political independence lies precisely in belonging to the wrong transnational, sovereignty-pooling body.

The Queen's recent Australian triumph in the Republic referendum reminds us that She's not as other monarchs. Her writ runs rather further afield, and with some greater consequence than those of her continental peers. Like (some of) them she reigns over pinprick islands and vast snowbound wastelands, but in addition She remains Queen of Greater Britain. From planted realms like Canada or New Zealand to the Caribbean states, her responsibilities dwarf those of, say, a mere Juan Carlos. For this privilege she has offered in return an obvious love for her Commonwealth. But no British politician today offers her any aid in this. Not even romantic support comes from ultra-Tories, bedazzled as they are by Enoch Powell's critique that the Commonwealth's a sham.

The Blairite right, in the shape of former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's tame think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, tried to move into this vacant territory by making a New Labour case for the Commonwealth. Reinventing the Commonwealth contained all the usual guff: move the secretariat out of London, bang on about human rights, remove the Queen as head, and remind Britain that she's just an ordinary member, no different to any other. What of course its authors, Kate Ford and Sunder Katwala, fail to appreciate is that it is exactly the reality of this last point that has made the Commonwealth the politically bankrupt enterprise it is today.

Thanks to the end of the Cold War, the shape into which the post-imperial Commonwealth had frozen into has melted into something slightly more appealing. Summits are no longer platforms from which third world dictatorships can have a pop at first world democracies, preferably Britain. Indeed, showing how far they and the Labour party have come, the 1997 Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh was chiefly distinguished by Tony Blair's offstage moves to overthrow one of the tin-pot African regimes.

But what a catalogue of the grotesque they used to be. Take the indignities successive British governments suffered in meek deference to the ludicrous pretensions of African and Asian tyrants about apartheid, the most dreadful aspect of this being that the 'frontline' African Commonwealth states which screamed loudest for the UK to impose comprehensive sanctions on South Africa had no intention of doing likewise themselves. And then of course when the ANC finally came to power, and was faced with whether or not to impose sanctions on the Nigerian dictatorship, their unbending refusal to do so would have done Thatcher proud.

Nothing, from going to war with one another, to performing the grossest of human rights abuses on their citizens, to squandering British 'loans' made any difference to the way Whitehall programmed ministers to receive their Commonwealth partners.

It must be faced up to that London in part endured all this because no Prime Minster really wants to upset the woman who receives them every Thursday evening for a briefing. Not even Lady Thatcher dared to tear up this aspect of the post-war consensus. Her famed 'one against fifty? then the one must be right' arguments with other Commonwealth heads of government over South African sanctions were never pursued to the ends their logic dictated. Thatcher's mild defiance of the despots was rewarded with the most poisonous of postwar Buckingham Palace-Number 10 relationships.

But the real tragedy of this is that the Commonwealth, contrary to the purblind Powell, was an asset, and one, moreover, depreciated not just by bad governments here and overseas, but by the actions of its head as well.

Even dead, the Commonwealth would in Britain be seen for the marvel it is if it belonged to anyone else. One feels ill just imagining a world with France replicated its length and width thus. Apart from the high diplomatic potential it offers, the Commonwealth also embodies (to use a current, idiotic, Blairite phrase) the true 'people's foreign policy'. Given any opportunity to diverge from their euro-obsessed governors, most ordinary people seem to prefer the prospects of political and personal connections with the Commonwealth – especially those countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas, Jamaica et cetera where the Queen remains head of state, and where, over the decades, Britons have either gone to or come from in vast numbers.

Although the UK, like those other realms, is a constitutional monarchy, and hence common sense and convention demand that the rotting of the Commonwealth must therefore be blamed upon bad advisers round the throne, the royal family cannot avoid some share of criticism.

There were plenty of opportunities for individual royals to reinforce both the symbolic link and the substance of the institution, yet these were ignored. For instance there was the pre-war practice of sending suitable royal sprogs, on request, to serve as Governors General.  However discussions linking Canada or Australia with, say, Charles or Anne were always allowed, from the late 1960s onwards, to peter out.

At any stage in the last forty years the Queen (or royal stand-ins) could have opened other of her Parliaments, not just the one at Westminster. Indeed, given the speed and safety of modern aviation, one has to wonder quite why this hasn't happened more than a handful of times. Her governments overseas may have become increasingly reluctant to put in the humble request because, like the rest of her family, the Queen has resolutely shown no inclination to reside anywhere other than in Britain.

Regardless of whether her serried governments would have made civil list-style contributions to her expenses, it surely would not have taxed the world's richest woman overmuch to have maintained (in her interest, as much as anyone else's) a royal residence in one or more of her overseas territories, let alone actually spent any great time in them? Even Edward VIII was able to afford a ranch in Canada.

Members of the Royal family find it easy enough to holiday in European ski-resorts, or tour for that matter unambiguously foreign countries (in particular, and excessively so, the United States) yet they seem to shy away from, for want of a better term, the Crown Commonwealth. The Prince of Wales is evidently determined not to foist his education on his sons, but surely McGill or Melbourne could supplement, or substitute for, British universities after Eton for Princes William and Harry?

Perhaps most foolishly of all, the Palace has neglected to build up a kindergarten of its own. The only comparable global institution to the Commonwealth monarchy is the papacy. It is buttressed by its own civil service, the curia, beavering away in Rome. Similarly, political high fliers could have been systematically plucked from the wider Commonwealth to serve a spell at court; this could have become a Rhodes scholarship-like mark of distinction with the recipients furthering their careers once they returned home, and thereby furthering the cause of the Monarchy outside Britain by advancing its adherents. To hammer home a point: this is what used to happen when the institution used to work.

Ironically, one politician who gave consideration and advice as to these ideas, is the man chiefly responsible for the cancer that did in the end kill the chance of a real Commonwealth. The chief villain of this piece is Patrick Gordon Walker. The stage on which the then junior Commonwealth Relations Minister did most long-term damage was the 'London Declaration' of 1949. It has been the Queen's sad fate to try and breath life into an organization which wrote its own suicide communiqué 50 years ago. As ever, the explanation for British diplomatic failure and decline in international power lies in the substitution of idealism for realism.

Prior to the London Declaration republican status and leaving the Commonwealth were synonymous. Both Burma and the Irish Free State in opting for one, got the other. Then came the great dilemma for (some, though not all, members of) Attlee's Labour government: what to do now that two years on from independence India wished to become a Republic? Should she stay or should she go? And if she was to be kept in, how?

There was another question, and Ernest Bevin asked it: why? Why keep India in at all, at the cost of doing great damage to the current Commonwealth structure? But lined up with Gordon Walker were two unlikely sentimentalists, Cripps and Attlee, both determined to keep their great achievement, self-governing India, firmly within anything that might be considered, if in name only, the Commonwealth.

In a triumph of bureaucratic casuistry, India stayed in, as a republic, thanks to the formula under which she would recognise the person of a suddenly now foreign sovereign as 'Head of the Commonwealth'. As in our dealings with Brussels today, the most grating aspect of 1949 was that it was not merely bad diplomacy, but such willfully unrealistic thinking from Whitehall. The London Declaration, by permitting states which became republics to remain in, not only voided the entire Commonwealth ideal. Worse still, it was an incompetent response to its proximate cause: India, and what a 'good' relationship with her supposedly necessitated.

British civil servants argued to the receptive Attlee and Cripps (and against Bevin) that it was an unspecified good if India were kept in; that, for Britain, unspecified bad things would happen if she were 'lost'; and, if she were kept in on anything other than a full and equal basis, the invidious consequence would be 'two-tier Commonwealth membership'.

Patrick Gordon Walker strongly prefigures contemporary British determination to challenge nobody else's bottom line while always being prepared to make any compromise on Britain's own position; his firm response to New Delhi's 1949 gambit was, 'the Crown link is out. Let's fit India in as a republic, based on the reality of a common act of will.' His diary does us the further service of detailing that

Bevin was extremely difficult ... he argued repeatedly that it was not worth keeping India in: it was not going to be morally committed to us, but we to it: it would pursue its own foreign policy, etc.

Bevin, the quintessential realist, knew that for the Commonwealth to continue to have the value it did, it needed to lose those members who didn't want to be in it as it was. Hence his, and the Foreign Office's campaign to make India accept the full consequences of opting to be a republic – namely, that she would be treated as foreign state.

It's difficult now to see how, if at all, Bevin was wrong. India-in-the-Commonwealth was a worthless objective to achieve as e.g. her Cold War dalliance with the Soviet bloc, her refusal to shelter any Ugandan Asians allied with her condemnation of British hesitancy to do so, her aggressive wars with fellow Commonwealth member Pakistan, and the carping, destructive role she has played inside all display. India outside the Commonwealth could hardly have been a worse diplomatic outcome for London.

In 1949, if India had become a foreign country, this would have meant she would have subsequently been dealt with by Bevin's robust FO rather than the dripping Commonwealth Relations Office.  Today there would have been no fora suitable for appeasing hypocritical and hysterical Indian demands on the UK. Most important of all: it would have been the recognition of reality. Keeping India in the Commonwealth has not stopped her from becoming foreign. What went for India equally would have followed for all the other colonies who, on independence, opted for republican status. As for India, had the republic found herself relegated to a dread 'second-tier' in '49, this would simply have been the start of sanity. A viable Commonwealth of solid institutional form, the sort Bevin sought, could not contain wayward and prickly republics who deny the essence of its commonalty.

Keeping India in killed the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth that would have lived if the likes of Bevin had got their way would not have been about colonies or subject peoples. Rather, it would have meant those self-governing units who wanted to stay together in free association would have done just that. It is not unreasonable to posit that this is exactly what electorates in all of the component parts would have voted for if ever their political elites had put the choice to them.

Perhaps, in the absence of anything other than inchoate desire for a terminal crisis in our European adventure, the Tory Party might return to an older, better cause, and argue for a revived, reduced Commonwealth. First manifesto pledge: Prince Charles, under David Watkin's supervision, will build a royal residence at Whistler. Second manifesto pledge: let's try and do something for the countries that did so much for us in the past. It's hardly to pre-empt the themes on my own book, but one of the many adverse consequences of the Suez Crisis was that the United States didn't just pick up one Anglophone client, she picked up every one going. Britain owes a genuine obligation to those countries who freely (and instantly) came to her aid in wartime. Once we free ourselves, doing what we can for the likes of Canada, Australia and New Zealand should be a high purpose of that independence. When we return to this subject and its practical implications, I will, as ever, attempt to show how freeing all the English speaking countries from US tutelage is every bit as good for America as it will be for them.

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis. He has also recently taken some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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