March 25, 2002
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.