A new royal baby and the imminent wedding of Prince Harry to TV star Meghan Markle will shore up support for the Commonwealth – but its future is far from certain.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see them replaced quite soon with pairs of china kiwi, Australian emu, Indian peacocks, even perhaps Papua New Guinea’s occasionally homicidal cassowary.
The monarchy and Britain itself are re-auditioning for our affections. They seem to have noticed only recently that the Commonwealth is a nest in which not all the little birds agree with them.
The combination of Brexit, new ructions in geopolitics, simmering republicanism and the controversial prospect of Charles taking the throne turned last month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) into an unprecedented charm offensive, as both Britain and the royal family faced up to the serious danger of being no longer relevant to the other 52 member countries. Adding urgency to this mission was the knowledge that a further scandal was about to engulf Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Scotland about her personal spending, influence-peddling and treatment of staff.
It’s true that behind the perfect storm is a pretty potent anticyclone in the form of the royal wedding on May 19 and the new royal baby that arrived on April 23. The glamour and wholesome popularity of the younger royals seem a medium-term guarantee of continued public interest and support. The overwhelming affection the Queen continues to command – few politicians can match her 80%-plus approval rating – is further ballast for the status quo.
But Buckingham Palace is well aware the republican movement in countries like ours will strike after the 92-year-old monarch’s death, seeking to capitalise on the lack of comparable affection for the eccentric and irascible Charles.
What did surprise Chogm observers was the new warmth and interest of Britain for the Commonwealth’s member states, which followed years of muttered complaints that Britain prioritised the frying of bigger fish. Its imminent messy exit from the European Union, renewed uncertainties over world trade and the geopolitics of the United States China, Korea, Russia and the Middle East have all highlighted the fact that the Commonwealth is no longer a British-facing organisation – and that Britain is no longer particularly influential. After all, 94% of the Commonwealth’s population now live in Asia or Africa.
The EU divorce pitches Britain into a new era of bilateral trade deals, at a time when the nations of its former empire are seeking collective agreements, with a new ambition to form their own trading bloc. With a combined population of 2.4 billion, those countries are on course to exceed US$1.5 trillion in intra-member trade by 2020 and have the makings of a useful free-trade growth force, especially given the impending trade war between the United States and China. The Commonwealth bloc’s market includes a third of the world’s population, including India’s 1.26 billion people. Pro-trade commentators assessing this Chogm seemed united in identifying the Commonwealth as a prime potential bulwark against renewed protectionism and a force capable of clearing capital roadblocks for developing countries – if only it would be more proactive and focused.
Even its stoutest defenders admit it could equally be nearing the tipping point into irrelevance, especially with its administration in such disarray. Chogms tend to be unmemorable events, save for the odd crisis such as Fiji’s coups and Nigeria’s human-rights breaches. Not so this time. Former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon says there is no doubt both Britain and the royal family are on urgent missions, both jointly and separately, to prove their relevance and commitment. During Chogm, both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle were put at the leaders’ disposal, and royal attendances were generously deployed, including that of Prince Harry and his fiancée, Meghan Markle, at a dawn service on Anzac Day in London. There’s a new fund to foster women’s employment and a Commonwealth-wide environmental programme to protect the oceans. All this after Charles and wife Camilla’s prominent role at the Commonwealth Games and leading up to the Queen’s successful surprise bid to ensure Charles succeeds her as Commonwealth head.
“The effort that went into this Chogm was unprecedented,” McKinnon says. “They’re now trying very hard to resurrect relations with many old neglected Commonwealth friends. We are suddenly their new interests – look at the Pacific, where they have just announced the establishment of three new high commissions; it’s not that long ago they were closing missions in Pacific countries.”
With the United States now an unpredictable and problematic ally, the Middle East in further disarray and a rift with the EU, Britain is running out of dependable friends, McKinnon says. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office used be very firm whenever he urged putting more work into Commonwealth ties. “They said, ‘We don’t have permanent friends. We have permanent interests.’”
McKinnon takes the view that the royals must display more than a rote, perfunctory sense of duty towards Commonwealth countries. The appointment of the popular Harry as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador, a job he says he will do in partnership with his new wife, suggests that’s been realised. More than 60% of the Commonwealth’s population is under 30.
Former New Zealand diplomat and senior palace staffer Simon Gimson, until recently the political director of the Commonwealth Secretariat, says a reappraisal of the Commonwealth’s potential is long overdue and an overhaul of its administration is urgently needed.
In a recent column for the Times, he said it was time Britain removed the patronising and self-interested lens through which it saw the Commonwealth. “Even today, membership is being peddled as a sunny upland of UK-centric trade growth, a wealthy alternative club to the EU following Brexit.”
Speaking from London, he said it was clear both the monarchy and the British Government were re-energising their efforts with the Commonwealth. There was no doubt the Government had reappraised the potential value of the grouping, but the Commonwealth had outgrown its colonial origins and endured as a coherent bloc only because of its collective ethos. The bloc was capable of further increasing members’ wealth, but the growth dividend would continue to be delivered only if members great and small continued to be given equal voice. Otherwise, it would inevitably become every country for itself.
“One of the greatest benefits of the Commonwealth is that when, say, Tuvalu expresses concerns about rising sea levels, the whole group can become a megaphone for that. It’s not just a tiny voice on its own.”
Gimson says the necessary reforms must include the ability to demonstrate that Commonwealth funding was being used to achieve material benefits, especially for the smaller, less wealthy members. He gave the example of the Caribbean island republic of Dominica, struggling after a devastating hurricane. “The taxpayers of Dominica, Tuvalu, Ghana – they need to see that their money is being put to good use.”
It won’t be lost on Commonwealth watchers that among the controversies engulfing Baroness Scotland are a likely obligation for the secretariat to pay £500,000 ($975,000) in compensation for her unfair dismissal of a staffer and £338,000 spent on refurbishment of her grace-and-favour Mayfair digs. The British press have reported both displeasure from the Queen at the way she is running the organisation, and threats from the Government to curtail Britain’s contribution.
Born in Dominica, the one-time barrister, who was Attorney General in Gordon Brown’s Labour Government, has been a strong advocate of the Commonwealth’s potential as a trading bloc, but the risk is that excruciating details such as her new £309 toilet seat will resonate more readily with the public.
No obvious benefit
The Commonwealth is a hard sell, given it has neither constitutional power nor immediately obvious benefit to most people. International law expert Al Gillespie, a professor at the University of Waikato, says that in the current scheme of things, the Commonwealth sits fathoms beneath Five Eyes (the security grouping of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK and the US) in its power over our lives, and is considerably less effective a disciplinarian than the United Nations. “It’s like a large family with lots of strange cousins: we know each other, but we haven’t got power over each other. Its sanction is just a soft slap.”
Gillespie believes the Commonwealth has enduring value as a prominent champion and exemplar of democratic freedom and as a repository of experience. “As Kiwis, we tend to want to reinvent the wheel, do everything ourselves. But often there’s someone in the Commonwealth we could learn from.”
Britain bestowed (or imposed) parliamentary, legal and other functional systems on its territories, and many countries usefully refined them: Australia, for instance, pioneered the centralised documentation of property ownership. As a country with a long history of stable, corruption-free elections, New Zealand is often called on to help with elections in other member countries.
At the very least, what began as a colonial club has grown into a sort of quality-assurance association. Countries such as Mozambique and Rwanda have joined, and others including Palestine, South Sudan and even, it is speculated, Israel are interested in joining, without having been British territories. These developments underline the perceived value of being included in this particular bloc.
Former senior diplomat and MP Paul Foster-Bell says that estimates vary, but it’s generally accepted that doing business with a Commonwealth country carries an average 19% advantage in returns over trade with non-members. That’s because the members all have dependable and well-established legal systems and functional law enforcement; enforceable property rights, backed by efficient record-keeping; and modern communications and technology, not least the option of speaking English. All are held, by membership of the bloc, to labour-force and human-rights standards and, increasingly, to environmental standards as well.
Perhaps most telling is the Transparency International corruption index, published annually: six of the 10 least-corrupt countries on the latest list are Commonwealth members. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that countries with constitutional monarchies score so well,” says Foster-Bell. “When you have a head of state who doesn’t have to seek office or raise money but has only light powers, that removes a potential layer for corruption to develop.”
He says that applies to countries outside the Commonwealth, including Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands, all of which remain monarchies.
If there were any doubt that the palace and 10 Downing Street were in future-proofing mode, it was dispelled with the Queen’s unprecedented formal request for Charles to succeed her as head of the Commonwealth. This was done with the foreknowledge of British Prime Minister Theresa May, but was still risky politics. India, for one, is increasingly uneasy that the Commonwealth is so closely tied to the royal family – and there’s no rule that it must be headed by a royal.
The Queen managed to get the 53 leaders to do two things that no politician ever wants to do: one, make a controversial decision they didn’t have to make yet; and two, lock themselves and their successors into a decision that may not, when the time arrives, still be politically palatable. No one but the leaders can know how this played out inside Windsor Castle, where the decision was made in the hearing of leaders only. But India cannot have been alone in its discomfort. Both the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers have expressed support for a republican future and Canada must steer carefully round activism for the sovereignty of Quebec.
Chogm’s unanimity is not something the royals can comfortably rely on, even now. Charles is a highly recognisable and globally significant next head, but the future of the Commonwealth is in its own hands, not those of Britain or the monarchy. It’s a crowded mantelpiece of increasingly assertive and querulous birds.
This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.