Up the Commonwealth

Sadakat Kadri

In the Telegraph last week, Andrew Roberts suggested that one of ‘the many splendid opportunities provided by the … heroic Brexit vote’ was the chance for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to unite as a federation. Nigel Farage advised Irish radio listeners to ‘hedge their bets’ by rejoining the Commonwealth. And Liam Fox (who wants us to abandon our ‘obsession’ with Europe in favour of the Commonwealth) has started ‘scoping out the parameters’ of a free trade deal with Australia.

Rekindling our colonial heritage may be all the rage among right-wingers, but it’s still just idiosyncratic chatter. Roberts has been a credulous cheerleader for powerful people for years – at least since February 2003 when, as the UK hesitated over war, he compared Tony Blair to Churchill and predicted his ‘apotheosis’ after ‘hundreds of weapons of mass destruction are unearthed from where they have been hidden’. Many patriots would meanwhile oppose any kind of federation that allowed free movement: Farage, though keen nowadays to portray the Commonwealth as a diverse alternative to the EU, also idolises Enoch Powell, whose racist reputation was built on the vilification of Commonwealth Asian and ‘Negro’ immigrants to Britain. Any hope of building a post-imperial bloc is correspondingly chimerical, and Australia’s government has said that bilateral negotiations can’t even begin until the UK has definitively fixed its future trading relationship with the EU.

It’s tempting to imagine that Theresa May realises this. She seems to be a pragmatist, and any effort to restructure Britain’s economy on resuscitated colonial links would be the bet of an unusually careless gambler. But May does like to surprise as well, and in her first speech as prime minister, she channelled the political spirit of Joseph Chamberlain, one of the earliest champions of an Imperial Federation. That earned favourable coverage from journalists who like the idea of May as maverick, and she could invite more comparisons by focusing on trade with the Commonwealth; London will be hosting its biennial summit in spring 2018 (postponed and relocated from Vanuatu because of the damage caused by Cyclone Pam last year).

Assuming she’s reluctant to go too far down this avenue, however, there is a random factor that could upset her calculations. The wild card is Boris Johnson. The foreign secretary shares the prime minister’s admiration for Chamberlain – though he probably sympathises less with Radical Joe’s politics than the looseness of his loyalties (he was a Liberal mayor of Birmingham and Conservative colonial secretary) – and, with dutiful nods at Churchill, he frequently expresses his support for closer union with the world’s ‘English-speaking peoples'. That doesn’t imply admiration for the Commonwealth – which Johnson once suggested exists primarily to supply the queen ‘with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies’ – but his lip service is now bound to become more respectful. And the niceties of diplomacy may dovetail with self-interest.

For the time being, Johnson owes Theresa May his political life, but as negotiations with Brussels grind on and she makes inevitable concessions, the tables are going to turn. All he’d need then to re-emerge as Brexist-in-Chief is a pseudo-manifesto, and free trade with ex-colonies would fit the bill perfectly. Its hint of imperial revival would allow him to pander to nostalgia and racism without saying an illiberal word – a trick he has been perfecting for months, anyway – while leaving him well placed to take May down, as and when her political credit finally goes bad.

That’s just speculation (except by comparison to the Brexiteers’ own prognostications, which make it look like quantum mechanics) and the guesswork may be awry. Perhaps ministers are about to abandon the fantasies and buckle down to the question of whether we should stay in the single market. The foreign secretary might forego celebrations of Anglo-Saxon genius and push for actual reform of less nebulous imperial legacies – the mandatory hanging laws that disfigure the statute books of Malaysia, Singapore and Trinidad, for example, or the British-based penalties against homosexuality that still exist in three-quarters of the countries London once ruled. There’s time enough. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting isn’t convening for 18 months. Brexit won’t literally mean Brexit until 2019, at the earliest. And once that’s all done, it’ll be easier to look sensibly at plans to revive the British Empire.


  • 20 September 2016 at 7:19pm
    Patriaomuerte says:
    Australia is not a colony and has not been since it implemented the Statute of Westminster in 1942. Similar reasoning applies to Canada, NZ etc.

    So to speak of Britain enhancing its relations with these countries as 'rekindling its colonial heritage' is either ignorant or betrays a mind befuddled by ideology.

    Harvard doesn't award many degrees to dummies, so it's probably the latter.

    • 21 September 2016 at 8:25am
      Greencoat says: @ Patriaomuerte
      'Enoch Powell, whose racist reputation was built on the vilification of Commonwealth Asian and ‘Negro’ immigrants to Britain.'

      That is also ignorance or, even worse, a downright lie. Powell's concern was about the sheer numbers of immigrants and the societal and finanacial cost to the UK.

      He vilified nobody except traitors.

    • 21 September 2016 at 12:36pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Patriaomuerte
      Australia doesn't have to still be our colony for us to rekindle our colonial heritage with it any more than Scotland has to still be where my family resides in order for me to rekindle my Scottish heritage.

    • 21 September 2016 at 3:40pm
      whisperit says: @ Greencoat
      Yeah, as you no doubt explained at the time to the West Indian families cleaning off the dogshit that had been smeared on their windows. Powell was really, really intelligent and read the classics in the original and everything.

      So when he repeated his alleged constituent's alleged fear that, "in twenty years' time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man," and that, "when she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies" that was only about immigrants, you see? Not racist at all.

    • 22 September 2016 at 5:19pm
      Boris Johnson's use of "piccaninnies" -- otherwise a tolerably obscure word these days, I'd have thought -- suggests that he shares Farage's adulation of Powell.

  • 20 September 2016 at 8:07pm
    Keith Johnson Wellington NZ says:
    New Zealand exports to the UK are worth less than a quarter of its exports to China and Japan is a more more important trading partner. As someone who lived for 7 years in Australia and who has spent the last 25 years in New Zealand, I can assure Boris that he will be pissing into the wind and find himself up shit creek in a barbed-wire canoe if he thinks that the Antipodeans give more than a brass razoo about Poms like him.

  • 20 September 2016 at 8:16pm
    Bob Beck says:
    Canadian here. To quote Paul McCartney, in quite a different context: Haha. No. We're not doing it.

  • 21 September 2016 at 12:21am
    abcd85 says:
    Nowadays, the Commonwealth is Facebook for Public Officials - not a political structure. Any country can join (Rwanda) and any club of like-minded officials can be created (for exchanges of views). It is even less structured or inclusive than the OECD.

  • 22 September 2016 at 8:21am
    benscanlon says:
    The images of Britain walking away from longstanding trading arrangements with the Commonwealth are etched into my mind and probably the collective psyche of my state. I was five years old in 1973, when the Tasmanian apple growers threw away what looked like a whole harvest because the UK had joined the EEC.

    The picture in our local newspaper, of an immeasurably steep valley filled with dumped apples stretching way, way down, far as the cameraman's lenses could focus, was the sort of thing to commits itself to memory, long after the flourishes in the preambles of trade agreements fade away.

    It was the first time I became aware that 'The World' could change our little island, and fast.

    But The World went on, and the Tasmanian growers discovered new Asian markets. Ripped-out trees were planted again. New apples for new tastebuds, Fujis and other varieties.

    The sceptre of the UK returning 40 years later? The roué's return, maybe?

    A grower's wife, in the Huon Valley, standing at at the door. White dress, shawl. Looking good for 40, eyes sharp. The steep valley sides, apple trees, shrugged branches heavy with red, yellow, green, marching in file, row after row, up, up up to the crests, everywhere you look.

    Here's Johnny London, with his expansive hands, the implausible shock of blond hair erupting from under his raggedy stovepipe hat, waving his arms around ... saying something witty about the Turkish president. She doesn't know WTF he's talking about.

    Sees his gin blossoms, sniffs at the boot polish brushed into his grey beard, casts her eyes down to his tattered shoes, and again up to that raggedy hat.

    She closes the door, on a look. No words required. Her Japanese husband will be back from the top paddock soon.

    'Who was that?' cry out the children.

    'No one, kids. Just some old tramp.'

  • 22 September 2016 at 10:33am
    Simon Wood says:
    I feel ill.

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