Commonwealth may yet be a saviour for the United Kingdom
Old colonies have never been priority, but now may be time to rebuild those bridges
The UK does not have to turn its back on Europe to trade with the Commonwealth. Photograph: Getty Images
The British Commonwealth, that ramshackle totem of former imperial glory, is open for business with post-Brexit Britain. Rekindling trade with English-speaking former colonies may look expedient at a time of continued national disquiet. But is it practicable?
The 53-nation Commonwealth evolved out of the British Empire at a time in the late 1940s when Britain no longer had the strength to carry out its overseas responsibilities and the US began to intrude its influence. The Commonwealth belongs to a mythic golden age when lives were organised and given meaning by the Union flag, as they no longer are.
The Conservative Eurosceptic argument that the Commonwealth can somehow replace Europe as the UK’s chief trading partner is, ultimately, more emotional than rational.
When the UK joined the EEC in 1973 it was feared that free trade with the Commonwealth would cease altogether. Territories marked red on the old imperial map might profitably have aligned themselves with the UK as they share a language, a legal system and a queen. But, in an abrupt betrayal, Britain turned its back on its allies overseas. Trade did not of course cease, but still it was a fine way for the UK to treat its loyal subject nations.
The problem for right-leaning Eurosceptics, however, is that their nostalgic vision of empire is not shared by the UK population. Few people in Britain today have reason to admire the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s governing principle – that people get along better than governments – remains a magnificent Anglocentric concept based on ideals of respect, civility and a dignified Anglo-patriotism. But, even if the Commonwealth helps sustain the myth of Britain’s importance, cutting loose from the continent simply to rebuild a Brexit fantasy version of the empire is deluded. Benefits no longer flow like milk and honey from Great Britain to its dependencies: as Britannia’s mantle became more and more threadbare, the old loyalties changed.
EnthusiastAn estimated one million Commonwealth citizens are resident in the UK. Clement Scott, a Brexiteer enthusiast for queen and Commonwealth, has lived in London for almost half a century. On Dowsett Road – his Tottenham address – the only reminder of his native Jamaica is a West Indian takeway: Peppers and Spice. Otherwise, Scott complained, the street had gone “all foreign”, by which he meant “east European”. He voted Leave in the hope of effecting an “immigration slowdown” and re-establishing emotional ties with the Commonwealth. It vexed him that Poles can travel and work freely in Britain. “They can’t sing a word of the national anthem, can they? They’re immigrants, that’s why.”
In Scott’s view, the UK has discriminated unfairly against “coloured” ex-empire immigrants in favour of “white” EU immigrants.
A week later I called on Nathan Mansingh, a Uganda-born, pro-Remain businessman operating out of a warehouse in Lewisham, south London. Plastic figurines of the blue-skinned Krishna were on sale alongside Buckingham Palace motif tea cups. To be an Anglophile and a Ugandan Hindu was not, for Mansingh, a contradiction. He said he was nostalgic for “all that was best” about British public life, meaning free speech, fair play, good governance and faith in parliamentary democracy – qualities which still “exist in the UK”, but in attenuated form. Getting out of the EU was “foolish”, said Mansingh. Why? “The EU never did – and never will – prevent the UK from trading with the rest of the world.”
From the Australian outback to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, indeed, the Commonwealth has a vibrant trade with the UK; exports to India, South Africa and Australia have gone up by a third in the past three years. Far from restraining the UK, the 27-nation EU has helped to boost British trade overseas.
Unsurprisingly, the Commonwealth was uniformly pro-Remain as it regards Britain as its sole trading voice in Brussels and a “front door” into Europe. Mansingh despaired of the anti-immigrant sentiment unleashed by Brexit. “What we need is another Churchill, not one of them short-pants politicians like Boris Gove. ” (I did not care to correct him.) A lifetime ago, perhaps, another Churchill might have been possible; but the British empire is dead, and the once-powerful UK may yet dwindle into a congerie of marginalised mini-states.
Back in 1972, when he fled Idi Amin’s racialist Uganda, Mansingh was full of hope for a “better future” and felt “secure” in his Commonwealth citizenship. He had not come to the UK to claim from social services , but determined to work. By migrating to “British Queen” country he was exercising a birthright; “UK – RIGHT OF ABODE” was stamped in his passport. “How things have changed.”
Not emotionally attachedSettling in Britain, Mansingh explained, used to be seen as a commitment that required a degree of emotional separation from the “old country”. Today, EU immigrants, with the internet and cheap flights, are less likely to see themselves as aspiring Britons than as members of a foreign country, hosted by, but not emotionally attached to, Britain. “Many EU migrants have no wish to integrate or become British citizens,” Mansingh complained. “They don’t even know what the Commonwealth is.”
Most historians agree that Britain’s stewardship of the Commonwealth took a blow under Margaret Thatcher, who unfortunately did not value the often-affectionate and loyal relationships between Britain and its former colonies. The Commonwealth drifted more decisively into the American camp and we have only ourselves to blame for that.
The UK does not have to turn its back on Europe to trade with the Commonwealth. Boris Johnson, as London mayor, championed the idea of a visa-free Commonwealth “migration block” between Australia, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. Promoting intra-Commonwealth trade along with free trade agreements with Europe is now opportune. Currently, the Commonwealth accounts for only 10 per cent of UK trade – as opposed to the EU’s 44 per cent. If all goes well, however, Theresa May’s brave new Britain will have no need to choose the EU or the Commonwealth – it can have both.
Ian Thomson is a freelance writer and journalist.