Book and journal

[This is an excerpt from a review of the book Shadows of Empire: The Anglosphere in British Politics by Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce which appears in the latest edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

The term is so flexible. There is no fixed membership, let alone any formal constitution for the Anglosphere. When it is convenient it can be seen as a core of the old white settler regions – Canada, Australasia, South Africa with the United States coming in and out. But then there is the question of locating Ireland: where do the divided British Isles really sit? Sentiment would look to India. Dr Manmohan Singh, reminding an audience in Oxford in 2005 that the sun never sets over the English-speaking peoples, added ‘of which the people of Indian origin are the single largest component’. Dr Manmohan Singh was speaking on the occasion of receiving an Honorary Degree at Oxford University (8 July 2005). And other countries – Singapore, Hong Kong, states in west and east Africa, and the Caribbean, islands in the Pacific – can be part of the Anglosphere, or not, as shifting economic and political priorities dictate.

This sophisticated discussion of ‘the Anglosphere’ overlaps, but not entirely, with the term ‘the Commonwealth’. It offers a fruitful guide to how a better understanding of the nature of the Commonwealth, its significance, and its potential, can be judged. Like the ‘Anglosphere’ the ‘Commonwealth’ is an ambiguous and ambivalent concept. It can mean different things to different people at different times. It is a lively concept and it is possible to give it a long evolutionary life. The London Declaration, 28 April 1949, enabled India, as a Republic, to remain a full member of the Commonwealth. In an after-dinner talk to celebrate what is widely recognised as ‘the birth of the modern Commonwealth’, Dr Alex May put 1949 in historical perspective, making a spirited case for the Statute of Westminster (1931) as an alternative birthday, among others. It sits alongside conventional diplomacy and many more elaborately structured international organisations. However, it lacks an effective overarching structure itself. For some, this is a great weakness and much of the venom directed at the Commonwealth Secretariat and the relentless media hounding of recent Secretaries-General come from what is seen as a failure of organisation and political ‘leadership’. Its myriad deficits provide plentiful ammunition for those gunning for its very being. But lack of such formal leadership is also in a peculiar way a strength.

Relationships between different parts of the world are just that: they involve the recognition and establishment of mutual (though not always equal) benefits and interests; they are inherently subject to change; they don’t always exist in simple harmony; they focus on economic, political and security matters, but also touch less tangible human qualities: common cultures, social practices, shared religious experiences, literary and artistic sensibilities, enjoyment of sport and play. How all these interact depend on time and place. As Professors Robinson and Gallagher (and their critics) taught us in the 1950s the ‘expansion’ of Europe was a complex and specific phase of historical development. It was not monocausal nor solely metropolitan-driven; it involved many genuine two-way interactions; and it manifested itself in the fluctuating interplay of economic and political power.Adaptability and nimbleness of response are a critical benefit in such a context.

It is a fact that the Commonwealth exists. It provides for a motley of nations a capacious awning beneath which many useful exchanges and discussions take place. Some are narrowly political (and some proponents of the Commonwealth are too obsessed with them); but others bring together common professional interests, or debates about educational, scientific, and cultural matters. Some things would happen whether the Commonwealth existed or not, but many are greatly facilitated by a Commonwealth connection.

The sovereign rights of each member will always play a trump card. Any organising principle of the whole body will inevitably be minimal. Its real value is as an enabling concept – not really to do things, but to help other people do them, bi-laterally and multi-laterally. This might not seem, to some, to be very glamorous; and it will hardly ever make headlines. But that should not deter respect for a remarkable international network.

The meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government held in 2018 would support this view. In an objective and measured account, Amitav Banerji summed up the proceedings in an article entitled ‘CHOGM 2018: A Right Royal Affair’. This began by listing the embarrassments that beset the London host government on the eve of the conference: the unjust and racist way in which it had treated the descendants of its Caribbean immigrants of half a century ago and its preoccupation with the extraordinary poisonous Brexit debates, particularly the cynical aspect of attempts to portray Brexit as ‘Empire mark II’. These difficulties were in part offset by a display of public humility on the part of the British government, some excellent organisation of the events, and the carefully choreographed royal glamour of the occasion in which it was agreed that the monarchy was committed to serve the Commonwealth into future generations.

The real business, though, was discussion at various levels of the range of major challenges facing the international community. Specific subjects, and approaches to them, varied from economic development and the inequality, both regional and class, that can result; gender discrimination; access to justice and the integrity of elections; the effects of climate change and pollution of the oceans; the importance of good and transparent transnational arrangements for trade, investment, prevention of crime, and movement of peoples: the whole summed up as a search for a fairer, more prosperous, more sustainable, and more secure future. Many people are tackling these issues in many ways. The Commonwealth, drawing on its great social, economic, and geographical breadth, its historical legacies, and its talented young people, retains a clear and positive part to play in promoting the common good.

Gordon Johnson is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.