‘Is there a future for the Commonwealth?’ Martin Shipton – Martin Shipton

The sight of Britain’s next king but one standing in a Land Rover wearing a white uniform festooned with regalia as he was driven around a parade ground was straight out of a colonial playbook.

And meeting islanders as they stood behind a barbed wire fence was hardly in tune with the spirit of equality we are told the Commonwealth now stands for. It seems that small countries that may previously have adopted a deferential approach towards their former colonial masters now want to throw off the last remaining shackles.

Jamaica wants to end the anachronistic arrangement under which the Queen has been its head of state while villagers in Belize forced the cancellation of a visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge following a row over indigenous rights. The Commonwealth was a strange institution from its outset.

It was based on the pretence that Britain had not been a colonial oppressor and that it was possible to make a smooth transition from the largest empire the world had ever known to a happy family of nations linked by association with a benevolent mother country that now wanted to be their equal.

Calling it the “British” Commonwealth didn’t help, because it implied possession and domination, even though its members were now independent. And the decision to keep an honours system based on the British Empire rather than the Commonwealth hints at the truth – that the Commonwealth was a PR stunt aimed at perpetuating imperial privilege.

Why did the newly independent nations go along with it? Many of their leaders had been educated in Britain, benefiting from the privilege accorded to a small colonial elite. They also bought into the notion that there would be trading links that could help shore up their countries’ post-independence prosperity.

Reinventing the empire in this way also made the project appear more palatable to those on the progressive side of politics. As a schoolboy in London, I had annual visits to the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, where there were well-meaning, if rather dull, displays about the geography and economy of each country.

I don’t recall anything about politics from these displays, however, especially uprisings against the British – another way in which the Commonwealth endeavour seemed inauthentic.Around 20 years ago the Institute was shut down.

Every two years a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting takes place at which discussions take place between the leading politicians of member countries. The next such meeting will be held in Rwanda in June. Yet it is difficult to avoid agreeing with the criticism that little is achieved at such events.

Inevitably – despite the perversity of Brexit – nations will gravitate more towards their neighbours than to an unwieldy group of countries that have little in common except that they were once ruled by the same exploitative despot.

Anyone who has any illusions about the reality of the British Empire in India, for example, should read the book Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor – as fine a riposte to imperial nostalgia as there could be. Another point to be made is that some Commonwealth countries have a long way to go in catching up with human rights that we take for granted.

A number of African countries in particular are very repressive towards their LGBT communities, for example. And yet there is another side to the story, with some prepared to make a passionate case for the Commonwealth as an agent of good.

Rogiero Verma, whose father was Indian and mother Italian, chairs the Welsh branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS). His father – PK Verma – established the branch in 2007, having been involved with voluntary organisations for years. Sadly he died little more than a year later and his son, a businessman, agreed to take over.

He said: “Of course there’s bad history, but we’re trying to do good at a local level by bringing people together. One of our successes has been getting a war memorial in Cardiff to commemorate those from Commonwealth countries who were killed during the world wars.

“We saw that as an important victory in getting recognition for people whose contribution and sacrifice had been overlooked.”

RCS Wales’ mission statement says: “[ We support] the mission of the Royal Commonwealth Society, which is to support and promote the modern Commonwealth, its cultures and its core values, through offering a forum for the debate, research and development of Commonwealth thinking on key international issues; through providing a centre for the celebration of Commonwealth art and culture; through its educational, youth and outreach programmes; through its commitment to the continued growth and resilience of Commonwealth civil society; and through its international network of members, honorary representatives and affiliated branches and societies.

“RCS Wales will continue to ensure that we remain relevant to the needs of a modern society by continuing to focus on promoting understanding of the Commonwealth’s values and programmes, and to spread the Commonwealth message of tolerance, diversity, freedom, democracy, human rights and sustainable development.”

Asked about the RCS’s educational programmes, Mr Verma referred to the annual essay competition for school pupils, run in two sections for those aged 14-18 and for those aged under 14.

One of the essay titles for the older group is: “Imagine you are a head of government delivering a speech to your counterparts at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda. Write a speech that highlights what you believe should be a priority for collective action within the Commonwealth.”

One of the titles for the younger group is: “Write a job description for a superhero needed to solve a problem in your community.”

Founded in 2015, the Commonwealth Youth Gender & Equality Network (CYGEN) is a youth-led and focused network which actively promotes and supports “the meaningful inclusion of youth voices on gender equality issues in local, national, regional, Commonwealth and international agendas”.

Summing up the value of keeping the Commonwealth going, Mr Verma said: “The world remains a dangerous place – we only have to look at what is happening in Ukraine to understand that.

“Coming together in groups to discuss the values we agree on but also those that we disagree about is the best way to avoid violence and do good.”

We’ll see in June if anything tangible comes out of the Rwanda meeting. Probably the best we can hope for is a bland restatement of general principles.

If the Commonwealth is to have a worthwhile future, it’s likely to be as a result of worthwhile local initiatives rather than embarrassing royal visits or conference grandstanding.

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