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Old links may have new importance: Commonwealth Day, 12 March

Has the Commonwealth had its day? A.W. Purdue argues that, as global power shifts, its strengths should not be ignored

Has the Commonwealth had its day? A.W. Purdue argues that, as global power shifts, its strengths should not be ignored

The Old Empire Day, which was renamed Commonwealth Day in 1958, was an important event. I remember carrying the Union flag as we paraded solemnly around the playground at my infant school. It was 1947, the year of independence and the partition of India.

It is fashionable today to argue that the great majority of Britons never had much interest in the Empire, but even in the late 1940s, when the imperial edifice was on the brink of dissolution, the Empire seemed to me part of being British. Most people I knew had relatives in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia; many had family who had served as soldiers or administrators in India. Yet, above all, there was a memory of the role the Empire had played in supporting Britain in two world wars. Has Commonwealth Day, or the Commonwealth itself - now expanded to embrace 54 countries - ever come close to achieving the same place in British affection?

High hopes had been invested in the Commonwealth. It was seen as a renewal of the old imperial links in a more democratic form. The dominions - independent, but linked by a common monarch and by close economic and social ties - were to be the cornerstone for a free association of countries that had been part of the Empire, even those on the verge of becoming republics or independent. Several developments conspired against such hopes: divisions due to the Cold War, the decline of Britain's military reach, the traumas of independence struggles, the end of the sterling area and, for the older "white" Commonwealth, the appeal of alternative ties to the US.

The problems of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence dogged Commonwealth relations, but the event most responsible for a decline in its influence was Britain joining the Common Market. In addition, governments that were preoccupied with the "special relationship" with the US and with Europe attached less and less importance to the Commonwealth.

There was one important dissentient to the modern view that the Commonwealth was "old hat": Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Commonwealth, ever conscious of her promise to devote her life to its service. Indeed, she often appeared more at home with African and Asian leaders than with British politicians. But it began to look, as A.N. Wilson commented, as if the Queen was "the only person in the British Isles who was interested in the British Commonwealth".

In fact, the word "British" had been dropped from the organisation's title as early as 1949, but it was true, at least until 1995, that the clearest common factor was that all members had had a close association with Britain and retained a cultural and institutional inheritance from the Empire. However, once Mozambique was admitted and later Rwanda (neither ever part of the British Empire), this could no longer be claimed.

Some formal links with Britain remain, however, for English is recognised as the main language of communication and the secretariat is based in London. Cultural and sporting ties, too, remain strong - if it were not for the Commonwealth, who on earth would we have as competitors in cricket? A provision that new members must, "as a general rule", have a constitutional link with an existing member is meant to ensure a degree of homogeneity. But as new applicants include Algeria and Madagascar, both ex-French possessions, there is the further diminishing of commonality based on historic connections.

The London Declaration of 1949 states that the Queen is head of the Commonwealth, but there is no provision that the Prince of Wales will automatically succeed her in that role when he ascends to the British throne, although any other successor is unlikely. This has been seen as a further possible final threat to British links and to Commonwealth identity.

The formal objectives of the organisation are a number of worthy aspirations, among them the promotion of democracy, good governance and human rights. But the fact that such aims were set out in conferences hosted by Zimbabwe and Nigeria - neither country noted for upholding them - points to a major gap between theory and practice. Despite its unexceptional principles, the Commonwealth has many members that fall far short of them.

What then can be said for the Commonwealth today, as we prepare with moderate enthusiasm to celebrate Commonwealth Day? What relevance does it have to the present, or future, of modern Britain? Applicants still line up to join and most members still have an association with Britain, which is demonstrated in the continuity shown in the military, educational, judicial and sporting spheres. And there are mutual advantages in having these links and exchanges. The variety of states that belong to it - advanced and developing economies, large states and small islands, democracies and thinly disguised dictatorships - give it a global spread and a unique identity.

That the Commonwealth has survived owes much to the fact that Britain's retreat from empire was accomplished relatively peacefully and that the Empire itself, with all its faults, left a legacy of considerable goodwill and many valued institutions - something that successive British governments, concerned to find a post-imperial role, underestimated. But their cooling towards a Commonwealth that they saw as increasingly marginal may well have been a mistake, particularly today, as the balance of economic power shifts to the East and the potential of Africa may finally be beginning to be realised.

Indeed, with the precarious financial state of both America and Europe, the twin preoccupations with the US and the Continent - at the expense of the global connections with those who once formed part of the Empire - may prove to have been a fatal error. And anyone teaching current affairs or contemporary history needs to be aware that, in a rapidly changing world where Asia is becoming the powerhouse and Africa provides the fuel, Commonwealth links, once again, may become crucial.

The Queen, more than occasionally derided for her supposedly sentimental and nostalgic fondness for the Commonwealth of Nations, may well have been more far-sighted than generations of British politicians in realising its importance. Perhaps, after all, we should take Commonwealth Day more seriously.

A. W. Purdue is visiting professor of history at Northumbria University

What else?

Celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee by contributing to the Commonwealth Time Capsule. Alternatively.

Key stage 1: magical mystery tour Travel around the world with amz1989's geography activity.

Key stage 2: melting pot

Explore diversity in Britain with a lesson from TheHamiltonTrust.

Key stage 3: getting to know you An extensive resource site from the Royal Commonwealth Society.

Key stage 4: rule Britannia

Start a debate on the Empire with a lesson from alainechristian.

Key stage 5: before the Empire

Explore pre-colonisation cultures with Mike Stallard's information and discussion pack.

In the forums

A teacher seeks advice on working in a Commonwealth country.

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