Commonwealth can succeed where others failed

David Howell looks again at the Commonwealth, and after admitting that his own Commons Committee report ten years ago may have been overly optimistic about the future success of the international body, it does offer some food for thought. Particularly in terms of promoting trade with the developing world. Certainly the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting did itself no favours two years ago in Nigeria by managing the press over the Mugabe controversy, by telling them little of the many billateral agreements struck at the five day event. He points out:

Intra-Commonwealth trade appears to be expanding steadily, as are intra-Comonwealth investment flows. This is hardly surprising, given that 13 of the world’s fastest growing economies are in the Commonwealth and that six of the leading countries in information technology and e-commerce – India, Australia, the UK, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia – are Commonwealth members. Shared legal procedures, lack of language barriers (there are no interpreters at Commonwealth gatherings) and many common business “habits” make life easier for direct investment flows between members. More than that, the Commonwealth offers – at least potentially – the kind of forum in which richer and faster growing countries and poorer nations can speak on equal terms, in which the faiths can discuss their problems calmly (there are 500m Muslims in the Commonwealth) and in which nearly all members are committed to contributing to global peace and stability, rather than pursuing vendettas against the “west”.

None of this may amount – at least yet – to the case for a Commonwealth free trade area (an idea attempted twice in the twentieth century, although in very different conditions). But it does suggest a pause for thought as to how this extraordinary network, stretching across regions and embracing a third of the world’s population, might, if it were strengthened imaginatively, do a better job than the existing battered international institutions. In particular it is surely time to think how a more ambitious Commonwealth of Nations could become a real force in both opening up the world economy and uniting the more well-intentioned countries in facing up to the ugly dangers of the age – such as terrorism, pariah nations, entrenched poverty, inter-ethnic wars, corruption and rotten governance – to name a few. But although countries continue to queue up to join the Commonwealth as it is – which must say something for it – the question is whether in its present form it could ever carry enough clout to perform this wider role.

He adds:

A possible way forward might be to offer a much closer association, if not actual membership, to some other important countries outside the existing blocs or uncomfortable within them, but which plainly belong in the “good guys” camp. The obvious candidate is Japan – a nation that is at last returning to what it terms “normal country status”, engaging actively in world affairs after decades of pacifism.

Global good guys, eh. What price Irish re-entry?

  • Nathan

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!

  • Brian Boru

    Sorry but I don’t want us to rejoin. All the countries in it are there simply because they are former British colonies. It sticks in my craw to join an organisation wherein the British monarch is always the head of that organisation. The message such an institutional framework sends is clear: You are part of our sphere of influence. Well Southern Ireland is no longer in Britain’s “sphere of influence” and long may that continue.

    Regarding the Commonwealth itself, I think it’s international influence is minimal considering that most of its members are Third World countries with little economic, political or military clout. The suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth has so far achieved nothing in terms of easing the tyranny of the Mugabe regime. And anyway, what is the moral authority of an organisation in which so many countries are failed states, with rigged elections or no elections, political-prisoners and spending all their aid on wars.

    I would also add that the traditional British Eurosceptic idea that somehow the Commonwealth is a viable alternative to the EU is ludicrous considering that the EU constitutes 20% of world trade and is the richest market on earth. Also, EU economic sanctions have a track record of actually achieving positive change e.g. Serbia, unlike Commonwealth ones. This should not b surprising because most Commonwealth countries are not important in trade terms internationally anyway.

  • heck

    Those who suggest Irish entry into the British Commonwealth seem to miss the very essence of republicanism (with a lower case R). The French republic was founded on the basis that all the “children of France” would be cherished equally by the nation. The US republic was founded on Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “all men were created equal”.

    No republican (again with a small r) could even countenance being a member of an organization who leadership was determined by accident of birth. How can any republican give any sort of reorganization to a hereditary monarch?

    Abolish the monarchy and then it may be up for discussion.

    To Ulsterman who use to end his postings on this site with the message “God save the queen” all I can say is “god save the republic”

  • Pete Baker

    I doubt that the bloody introduction of the French republic is such a convincing point to reference in your argument, heck.

  • heck

    Peter, and your point is?

    Talking of bloody movements I was also going to mention English republicanism but I thought Oliver Cromwell was too sensitive a subject to mention on an Irish web site.

    In spite of bloody births (the American republic was born on the terrorism of the revolutionary war) republics are still the ideal form of government. The ideal that all are equal before the law should be the aim of any government and joining a political organization, the leadership of which is based on the medieval concept of the divine right of kings, would be a big step backwards.

    It also means to me that true republicans should be opposed to sectarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia.

  • Henry94

    I would have no objection to Irish membership of the Commonwealth. It is not a republican organisation but there are many republics in it. It is as concrete a way as I can imagine to say to our British fellow citizens that their part of the Irish story is valid and respected.

    Of course it would be nice to see the ban on Catholics ascending to the British throne being lifted as part of the process.

    Let’s all write some new history.

  • Ling

    In all honesty, who cares about the monarchy? It is a powerless figurehead, much like our President, that is little more than the public face of the state. Big Whoop.

    Waa waa, we don’t want to join the commonwealth as it has a nasty old monarchy based on ancient unfair practices, blah blah blah…

    The Queen has 0 power. Nothing. Nada. She hardly determines policy in the commonwealth, ruling with an iron fist, does she?

    You just make yourself look like an ass whinging about a ceremonial role. It’s just so totally facile and pointless. It’s just an excuse, and feels like a way of saying “We don’t anything to do with Britain or the commonwealth ‘cos they have cooties!”

  • Keith M

    Brian Boru : “Sorry but I don’t want us to rejoin. All the countries in it are there simply because they are former British colonies.”

    Mozambique (hint, they speak Portuguese)? Cameroon (hint, French is still an offficial language)?

    The rest of your rant is made look even more nonsensical when you can’t even get the basic facts right.

    Ireland should be in the Commonwealth, failing to recognise our common history with many of these countries and unwillingness to get involved in a successful north/south organisation is simply shortsighted.

    Who knows, we might even be able to add “whataboutery” to the Commonwealth Games events, and get Henry 94 the gold medal he so richly deserves?

  • heck

    I can think of thirteen former british colonies that are not members of the commonwealth, and they have done a lot better than all those who have.

    The commonwealth is just a remnant of imperialism. As for the monarchy. If it has no power and does nothing get rid of it.

  • CQ

    Keith M:”Mozambique (hint, they speak Portuguese)? Cameroon (hint, French is still an offficial language)?

    The rest of your rant is made look even more nonsensical when you can’t even get the basic facts right.”

    Keith M, you have got the basic facts wrong. Part of Cameroon was a British colony between 1922 and 1961.

    Do you think that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia should rejoin the Commonwealth of Independent States to recognise their shared history with Russia?

  • Mick Fealty

    No one interested in discussing trade flows with the developing world then?

  • Brian Boru

    “The Queen has 0 power. Nothing. Nada. She hardly determines policy in the commonwealth, ruling with an iron fist, does she?”

    She has a veto over legislation and she sacked the government of Australia in the 70’s. Read up your books.

    “Ireland should be in the Commonwealth, failing to recognise our common history with many of these countries and unwillingness to get involved in a successful north/south organisation is simply shortsighted.”

    If there was a rotating head of the Commonwealth it would be easier to swallow. But still hard. I don’t think I could swallow it. I am Irish not a Brit or a West Brit for that matter 🙂 The Queen is a symbol of oppression. She may not have oppressed anyone herself, but she holds a position that represents 700 years of tyranny in Southern Ireland and as such rejoining an organisation headed by such a contentious symbol is something I despise intensely. The only thing which might drag me kicking and screaming to reconsider would be if it would make a United Ireland feel less threatening to Unionists, but I doubt very much that it would, because they just don’t trust Irish Catholics, and are often brought up on a version of history that constantly portrays Irish Catholics as having it in for them which is generally not true.

  • Brian Boru

    “No one interested in discussing trade flows with the developing world then? ”

    I agree that fairer trading-terms between rich countries and the developing world are part of the key to ending the economic plight of the Third World, but they are not the only answer. The governments of these countries are going to have to cop on and stop wasting all their money on Swiss bank-accounts, sports-cars and mansions. Freer trade with these countries should be made conditional on adherance to democracy and human-rights, and a significant improvement in the terrible corruption situation.

    If the Commonwealth were turned into a free-trade area, then there would no longer be an incentive to hold members to these ideals. It’s like the question of Turkey joining the EU. Turkey is promised EU membership and aid if it improves womens/Kurdish rights. But it has been found e.g. police beating up womens’ rights protesters, that when the spotlight and pressure on that country is turned off, that the old ways return. So once Turkey gets into the EU (God forbid) they will no longer have any incentive to abide by Western democratic norms.

    The same will happen if the Commonwealth becomes a free-trade area, in my opinion. Countries should have demonstrated a record of good governance in the areas of human rights, democracy and combating corruption before being admitted to such associations. It should be demonstrated that the leopards have genuinely changed their spots before they can be trusted. It is notable then that the Commonwealth is full of corrupt and undemocratic regimes, and that being so, it would seem to me to be unfortunate for human-rights, democracy, combating corruption etc. if it automatically became an unconditional free-trading area with its current membership.

  • Keith M

    CQ, Cameroon was never a British colony, it was a German colony which they were forced to give up after the Great War, the land then was then administered by the League of Nations who created a French and British mandate. The British one covered less than 20% of the land mass. After WW2, the UN renewed the both mandates. There is no comparision between the Commonwealth and the CIS.

    This thread has had more red herrings than most.

  • CQ

    Keith M, I don’t think anyone would consider British rule in Cameroon as anything other than colonial – the territory was ruled as part of Nigeria. See http://www.ambafrance-cm.org/lmth/camero/histoir/cambr.htm
    for example.

    As regards the CIS, I think it quite resembles the early British Commonwealth.

    As regards us rejoining – I doubt very much if the Commonwealth wants us back. Ireland would be a rather disruptive member with regular boycotts from anti-commonwealth presidents and ministers.