Working for a more just world can’t be done by saying “I wouldn’t start from here”

As the Commonwealth Games holds the attention of sports fans, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in London, there has been another round of speculation about the organisation’s future, and debate about its past. Is the Commonwealth merely a legacy of Empire, a reminder of the brutal crimes of Empire, or is it a mutually beneficial community of countries bound together by bonds of friendship?

Undeniably the history of the British Empire is a shameful one, even though jingoistic patriots will still defend it. Actions which would indisputably be condemned as crimes against humanity were they committed today go unrecognised as such. Denial about these crimes, such as the prototypes of concentration camps and acts of mass murder which bordered on genocide, is indefensible in historical terms. The UK, including Scotland, perpetrated and became enriched by this criminal enterprise.

But at the same time, the Commonwealth as it stands today forces no country to join or to remain a member. The governments of formerly colonised countries must see some benefit from their membership, even though they are of course making this choice in the context of immense political and economic injustices which owe their origins to colonialism. Working for a more just world can’t be done by saying “I wouldn’t start from here”; we can only make progress by setting out from our current position.

So what kind of future, if any, should the Commonwealth have? Some might say that as a remnant of Empire it should simply disappear. Others (perhaps less likely to be National readers!) might be outraged at the suggestion and want to reinforce the Commonwealth as a vehicle for British influence around the world. The idea of “Empire 2.0” began as a joke within the civil service to expose the absurdity of the Brexiteers’ wilder fantasies, but some of them are delusional enough to have missed the satire and taken it seriously.

But it seems to me that if we really want to recognise the injustices of colonialism, we should accept that the future of the Commonwealth shouldn’t be the decision of the UK. With less than 3% of the population of the Commonwealth, the UK is only in a leadership role because of the crimes our forebears committed. India by comparison is home to more than half of the total population of the member states, and the overwhelming majority live in Asia and Africa. Surely if this organisation is capable of a future which moves beyond the legacy of Empire then it should be theirs to lead, with the UK’s involvement limited to whatever contribution the formerly colonised countries would have it.

What would such a Commonwealth look like? I have very little doubt that it would carry on holding a terrific Games event. Perhaps it would become a more vocal leader in the questions of aid, trade and development. Global trade rules have continued to protect by treaty the economic advantages that countries like the UK won by piracy in previous centuries, and the hard-right free market ideologues currently in power in the UK are seeking a new wave of trade agreements which would facilitate deregulation and privatisation, transferring ever more power from democratic control into corporate hands. Even international aid has too often been geared toward donor countries’ interests.

We have witnessed sickening familiar hypocrisy this week of a UK Government promoting its campaign to recruit nurses from the Caribbean while their own “hostile environment” policy has already destroyed the lives of some of the Windrush generation, and left many more feeling vulnerable and persecuted. Yet even as this scandal broke, the UK Prime Minister attempted to avoid meeting with Commonwealth leaders to discuss the disgraceful treatment of their citizens. The Commonwealth should have been able to call on its own leadership to publicly challenge the UK in this situation, but as that person is currently the UK Head of State, it wasn’t even an option.

Of course there would still be many challenges in a Commonwealth fully led by the UK’s former colonies instead of by the coloniser. The demand for greater leadership on LGBT human rights for example would remain urgent. But any influence we have there is already a form of “soft power”, and that wouldn’t change. Public attitudes will continue to be shaped as people share their experiences and ideas, just as we did at Pride House when the Commonwealth Games came to Glasgow, and just as equality and human rights campaigners will continue to do in every country. 

To imagine that progress toward equality, or toward economic justice in a post-colonial future, relies on one country telling others what to do would be to repeat the abuse of power that the history of Empire represents. As the inheritors of unmerited privilege, perhaps our best role is to step back and listen.


This article first appeared in The National