Its critics have long predicted its demise, yet the Commonwealth remains as a network whereby small and large nations can come to the table as equals. In the latest edition of Overseas Ross Davies asks Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, what makes the organisation still tick amidst an age of geopolitical uncertainty. 

Let’s be frank for a moment. If you were to take a cross section of the general public, most would struggle to describe the role of the Commonwealth.

Such is the lack of public recognition around the organisation that when asked a couple of years ago to name its head as part of a survey, a quarter of Jamaican answered Barack Obama.

As readers of this publication, and members of the Royal Over-Seas League – itself affiliated to the Commonwealth – such unfamiliarity with the institution, particularly amongst the people of its member states, might come as a disappointment.

After all, we are not talking about a clandestine society club. Its 53 member countries cover around 27% of the globe, with a total landmass of 31 million square metres – roughly 21% of the world total. Commonwealth countries account for 2.2 billion people – 33% of the world population – and have a combined GDP of £10 trillion.

Those are impressive figures all right, so why is it that the layman knows so little about the Commonwealth, compared to, say, NATO or the UN?

The first distinction to be made is that the Commonwealth is not a formal group like NATO or UN; rather, it is a network of countries that are bound mainly through historical and cultural ties, not formal obligations.

Neither is there any formal trade agreement between Commonwealth member states. Instead, it serves as a conduit or platform through which ministers can meet informally and discuss trading potential.

But, in the past, the organisation has also not been afraid to flex its geopolitical muscle. The agreement of Commonwealth leaders on a programme of economic sanctions against the South African regime in 1986 is widely credited with contributing to the end of apartheid.

In 2007, members also moved to suspend Pakistan from the Commonwealth for a second time due to the imposition of emergency rule by then-President Pervez Musharraf – judged to be in direct contravention of democracy, rule and law, and “the Commonwealth's fundamental political values”. Pakistan returned to the fold a year later upon the resignation of Musharraf.

According to Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, in recent years the Commonwealth has sought to increasingly position itself as an organisation built on goodwill and friendship.

“Since its great crusade against apartheid in South Africa, it has attempted to reinvent itself as a group promoting good governance, human rights and democracy,” Murphy tells me when I visit him in his office, located a stone’s throw away from Russell Square.

Murphy, who began his current role in 2009, is keen to talk about trade. While not strictly a trading bloc, research from 2015 by the Commonwealth Secretariat – its civil service – suggests member states are 20% more likely to trade with each other than outside nations. What’s more, trading costs are said to be 20% less between Commonwealth countries.

So, is there such a thing as a Commonwealth advantage?

“For a while now, there has been this idea of a Commonwealth culture, which makes trading easier, because you have common legal systems, tradition and language,” says Murphy.

“From a British standpoint, we saw it most notably with Tony Blair’s Labour government, which looked at pushing a trade agenda through the Commonwealth. But I think it’s very difficult to measure precisely trade between member states, as we don’t have standards across the globe for the cost of trade.”

Murphy doesn’t outwardly dispute the figures from the Commonwealth Secretariat, but warns that they “are notional, and involve a lot of counterfactuals, such as proximity between nations”.

If there’s anything that’s galvanised UK discussion over the Commonwealth in the last year or so, it has been Brexit. Some – especially those who voted in favour of leaving the European Union – believe it offers the UK an opportunity to establish new trading channels with old friends.

Writing in an editorial in The Telegraph days after the vote, Lord Howell – a former Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – argued that “whatever relationship the UK ends up agreeing with the EU Single Market, the time for a sharply increased focus on both Commonwealth and adjacent markets is now ripe, and crucial for the UK’s continuing prosperity and, because of connectivity, for other European economies as well”.

Howell went on to argue that Commonwealth nations such as India, Australia and New Zealand “ had all expressed interest in trade talks” with the UK, while historic ties to Hong Kong might also serve as a springboard to create new roots in Asian markets.

Murphy, however, doesn’t believe that the EU can simply be replaced by the Commonwealth, which accounts for around 10-12% of UK exports – compared to 44% on the continent.

“If there was even a 5% drop in trade with the EU as a result of Brexit, the UK would need at least a 25% increase in trade with Commonwealth by way of compensation,” he says.

“So it’s not necessarily the case that any new deal Britain strikes would be of greater advantage to it trading position – or to developing countries within the Commonwealth.”

In other words, the UK would need to look at trade deals through the prism of all of its Commonwealth allies, and avoid anything resembling Anglo-centricity. Deals and investment relations should be akin to a partnership of equals.

In fact, this is something that even those ambivalent towards the Commonwealth admit is one its best characteristics – the provision of a platform on which smaller nations can speak to larger nations on an equal footing.

In recent years, the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings have been hosted in Malta, Uganda and Trinidad and Tobago. Last year’s summit had been scheduled to take place in Vanuatu, until it was cancelled due to cyclone devastating the island nation’s infrastructure in 2015.

“If you were the president of small state, you’d want to belong to the Commonwealth, because it has the hallmark of legitimacy and international respectability,” says Murphy.

“That’s a really useful thing to have. It allows smaller countries to interact in diplomatic fora with larger, more powerful states. So, if someone staged a coup against you, for instance, you could contact Marlborough House and raise international concerns that way.”

Despite the brand of gentle goodwill projected by the Commonwealth, it’s not all been plain sailing in the last few years. In 2013, the Gambia rescinded its membership with former President Yahya Jammeh labelling it a neo-colonial institution. In 2016, the Maldives also withdrew, accusing it of interfering in its domestic affairs.

Yet last year, after Jammeh went into exile after losing the Gambian elections, new President Adama Barrow pledged to return the country to the organisation. There is even a chance the institution may see its ranks swell in the near future. Sudan, South Sudan and Somaliland have all voiced their intent to join in recent years. 

“Like I said earlier, it’s not surprising these countries want to join the Commonwealth,” says Murphy. “It boosts their diplomatic weight.”

A while back, there was also talk of Palestine joining, although Murphy doubts this could ever happen while tensions in the Middle East remain so fraught. “It would be political dynamite”.

As for its future, Murphy sees the Commonwealth as a going concern. Of its 53 members, 16 countries still have the Queen as their monarch, which won’t change any time soon, “as it’s too difficult for these states to make the transition to republics, even if they wanted to”.

Commonwealth detractors – particularly those on the far left – view it as nothing more than a hangover of the British Empire.

As evidenced by the recent furore Christmas surrounding Oxford University professor Nigel Biggar – who launched a project balancing the rights and wrong of Britain’s colonial legacy – the empire can be a polarising topic. Biggar stands accused by some 60 of his own colleagues at Oxford of “whitewashing” history.

But, the Maldives aside, there is little evidence that former colonies want to break ties with Commonwealth, says Murphy. Research conducted by his department reveals quite the contrary.

“Between 2013 and 2016, we interviewed over 70 leading Commonwealth figures – including secretaries and Prime Ministers – as part of a major project called the Commonwealth Oral History Project,” he explains.

“I went over to Dehli to speak with three Indian foreign ministers, and I asked about a possible exit, and one of them turned to me and said, ‘Well, if you are a member of a club, why would you leave it?’ One of the Commonwealth’s greatest achievements is that it still exists.”

Read more features on the Commonwealth in the latest edition of Overseas

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