The Commonwealth: British Diplomacy’s Open Goal

The Commonwealth: The gift horse we sent to the knackers yard

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing a great deal about the Commonwealth. You’ll have probably heard they have an Olympics style tournament now and again. It’s something to do with the Empire, isn’t it?

Well here’s a crash course…

It is an association currently numbering 54 countries, most (but not all) with some historic link to Britain. It has more than two billion people, over half of whom are 25 years old or less. The Queen is head of State of 16 of the members.

Yet successive British governments have woefully neglected the Commonwealth. At best it’s a novel plaything for diplomats and a safe place to dump a junior minister in charge of so they can’t do too much harm. At worst, it’s an embarrassment, an unwelcome reminder of Britain’s imperial past. If it weren’t for the monarchy, Labour and the Conservatives would have probably quietly conspired dissolved it years ago.

Economics Opportunities

Even before the Eurozone Crisis however, the growth potentials of the EU and Commonwealth were in stark contrast. In real terms, economic growth in the EU has been falling decade upon decade since the 1970’s and more sharply in recent years.

The EU is facing a demographic nightmare as a rapidly aging population becomes dependent on an ever dwindling number of young people to support it. Europe continues to tumble down the competitiveness tables. Under a crushing burden of tax and regulation, European businesses are scrambling to move operations away from a continent that increasingly views business as a necessary evil, there simply to finance the Almighty State. In First World Europe, the law of diminishing returns means that ever greater investment is needed to reap ever smaller profit.

Yet the Commonwealth is booming. Here’s some numbers

-If the Commonwealth today were an economic bloc, it would be equal in size to the United States

-It would have 13 of the world’s fastest growing economies

-It would possess most of the world’s leading knowledge economies outside of the US

-It would have one third of the world’s population

-It would represent 40 per cent of the membership of the World Trade Organisation.

Africa and South Asia hum with innovation, dynamism and risk taking. As Europe’s quarries and mines are exhausted, resource rich Commonwealth countries are crying out for Western companies to help them tap the riches natures has bestowed on them. Commonwealth countries also enjoy a stability all too scarce in the developing world.

There are those that would argue that the EU/Commonwealth debate isn’t a binary choice. Well, unfortunately it is. As a condition of joining what was the then EEC, Britain was forced to surrender its free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand. For despite its rhetoric about free trade and growth, the aim of European leaders has always been the creation of a Fortress Europe, with its members entirely dependent on the EU for every conceivable product and resource. 800px-CommonwealthFlagsTheMall20060617_CopyrightKaihsuTaiBi-lateral trade deals by an EU member with a non-EU state are forbidden.

If the European Union is handcuffing ourselves to a corpse, the Commonwealth is the upwardly mobile euntrenpaneur handing us a business card.

Shared Values

The architects of the European project like to highlight the cultural similarities between members of EU. Italy, Spain and Portugal share are common history and similar language, fair enough. But are we expected to believe that Finland and Greece have much in common? Do Ireland and Romania have interchangeable traditions? Do Germans and Cypriots approach work and taxes in the same way? Do Britain and France agree on the basis of the relationship between the individual and the State?

Of course not. The EU is defined by geography more than anything else. Conscious of this awkward truth, European leaders are desperate to homogenise 450 million people into a single bland entity. A flag, a currency and even an anthem have all been crow barred in as part of a clumsy unifying effort. National identity and cultural distinctions are sneered at as quaint relics. Expressions of pride in ones heritage are called ‘unhelpful’ at best or ‘extremist’ at worst.

The Commonwealth by contrast revels in its diversity. Every flag, language, religion, national dress and history are embraced and celebrated. For what binds the Commonwealth together is a shared set of values and a legal and governmental model. The rule of law, multi-party democracy, free trade, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the primacy of the individual over the State are all central to the Commonwealth’s ethos.

What’s more these are British values, a thousand years in the making.

Unlike the EU where artificial commonalities are imposed by dictate and directive, the values of the Commonwealth are voluntarily embraced, and are subsequently stronger and more deeply rooted.

There are also diplomatic benefits to be reaped from giving the Commonwealth the attention it deserves. Through the English language, business partnerships, immigration, shared military doctrine and training, and yes… even cricket, Britain is able wield a global influence far in excess of what a country of our size should have. Russia, the US and China ache to have the kind of ready made soft power network Britain has. Yet we ignore it.

This is not about rebuilding the Empire. Nor is it a rejection of any and all relationships with Europe. It is about removing the EU blinkers and seeing that there is a big world out there and we already posses an unrivalled platform of opportunity.

From an economic, cultural and historical perspective, we have more in common with Mumbai and Melbourne than we do with Madrid and Milan. It’s time we had the courage to acknowledge it.


  1. An American led Commonwealth might be more realistic in todays world,one in which members swear allegiance to principles or constitution and not a monarch.It would also have to include some French and Portuguese colonies as the Celtic people are on the rise,this “New Commonwealth” would be more Scottish in personality but led by North America.A simple solution to a chaotic world, leaving the other nations to seek their own best alliance

    • It also has a declining, aging population, a declining share of world trade, restrictive trading laws, and a dependence on the outside world for raw materials. It is increasingly irrelevant in terms of military and diplomatic clout.

      • The UK, the USA, the EU, and most developed countries ALL have “…a declining share of world trade…” for the simple reason that China has gone from ZERO participation in world trade to nearly 20%. The EU’s share has declined less than that of both the UK and the USA…..

        As for the diplomatic clout, that is increasing. The military clout is tiny, mostly because the UK has consistently vetoed any attempt to develop any useful EU military capability….

        Your assertion about EU military capability is a bit like blaming a crime victim for being attacked..

  2. We are simply not told about the Commonwealth anymore a dirty stain that smacked of “Empire” but as this brilliant piece points out its there and its working! I remember in the dim and distant past many a school trip to the Commonwealth Institute and the impressive South Kensington building THAT SHUT IN 2002!


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