The creation of the modern Commonwealth is one of the most curious and extraordinary developments in world affairs since the end of the Second World War. The British Empire comprised a third of the globe: the biggest empire in history where famously ‘the sun never set’.
Colonialism had been brutal, crippling, humiliating and deeply unwelcome to many of the people who lived under it. The early and mid-twentieth century saw many movements that argued strongly for independence and with it the end of British rule. Almost until the end, this was resisted by Britain, sometimes violently. The fall of Britain’s Indian Empire, and with it the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan in August 1947, was a momentous occasion. Undivided India was the most important possession in the British Empire and its loss signalled the beginning of the end.
After years of deep colonialism that inflicted subservience and deprivation on so many people, and where countless men and women had fought for freedom, why would a country like India join an organisation like the Commonwealth, which was indelibly tied to the empire that caused its subjugation?
‘In Nehru’s pragmatic view, a new state like India needed allies and international influence in its post-independence existence’
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was a strong believer in internationalism. But the British Commonwealth of Nations, as it was known at the time, was anything but international: an exclusive group comprised of the ‘old Dominions’: countries like Australia, Canada and South Africa, that were led and dominated by white settler communities. In fact, before Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart joined in 1947 there were no non-white Prime Ministers in the group. But Nehru believed that the Commonwealth could be a force for good. His idealism inspired him to see the Commonwealth as something that could help humanity come together.
In Nehru’s pragmatic view, a new state like India needed allies and international influence in its post-independence existence. After the devastations and divisions of the Second World War and the late colonial years, in particular, Nehru believed the Commonwealth could bring to the world ‘a touch of healing’. Several leaders from across the old Commonwealth were deeply apprehensive about India’s inclusion due to racial and political reasons, but eventually, the advantages were seen. The freedom fighters voluntarily joined the coloniser in what was then, something utterly new.
‘The freedom fighters voluntarily joined the coloniser in what was then, something utterly new’
India’s powerful example would soon be followed by states from across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, creating a unique modern organisation built from the ruins of empire, but enhanced by the principles of equality and freedom among former colonial peoples. In London in 1949 the eclectic mix of States declared themselves to be ‘united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’. No longer a white man’s club, the Commonwealth in those early days, recognised the need to adapt to the new circumstances or face extinction.
Taking the Commonwealth’s story to the present day, the ideals that surrounded the inclusion of India have not always been lived up to. More than 70 years after that idealist moment, the Commonwealth finds itself in very different circumstances. Its relevance is widely doubted. Its political powers are supine. Its presence is routinely ignored. In fact, there are near-constant calls for the Commonwealth to be wound up due to both perceived and real failures.
It is, however, premature to pen the Commonwealth’s obituary. Making a difference does not always mean generating headlines. The Commonwealth’s strengths have been in education, practical training, sport, and sharing expertise on everything from agriculture to law. These attributes are enhanced by the wealth of experience and the variety of cases within the Commonwealth that are underwritten by a common history.
‘Such a scheme would see the exchange of ideas, the meeting of souls, the forging of partnerships and collective ambitions for the future’
In order to revitalise interest and relevance in the Commonwealth, the focus must be on the fact that one in three young people age 15-29 on this planet live in the Commonwealth. The future is theirs. In an uncertain world, the Commonwealth can help this group realise its potential. Substantial investment and pathways must be established to foster opportunities for the young.
The UK and other wealthy members still provide dedicated scholarships for students to study and train in their countries. But these important bonds of friendship and connection are woefully limited, while a key institution is under serious threat of closure: the respected Institute of Commonwealth Studies founded in London in 1949.
A new Commonwealth education scheme needs to be established: a scheme that would not only support bursaries but also encourage the Commonwealth’s young people to think imaginatively. Like Europe’s Erasmus education exchange programme, the Commonwealth could create a scheme to answer the needs of its own youth. A Commonwealth-wide scheme, named after Nehru who himself benefitted from studying abroad and whose ideals are in harmony with the idea, would encourage students to not only study in each other’s countries but also to engage culturally, socially, athletically and professionally.
The scheme would also demonstrate that the Commonwealth is more than just London and foster appreciation of the matchless nexus the Commonwealth creates—drawing together places and peoples from Johannesburg to Jaipur and beyond. Such a scheme would see the exchange of ideas, the meeting of souls, the forging of partnerships and collective ambitions for the future and would have the potential to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and change the world for the better in subtle, but worthwhile ways.
At the very least it is worth remembering, as the Historian Anthony Low put it, the Commonwealth ‘provides the readiest means available to use for orienting ourselves sensibly to the most of our fellow humans’. It is time for the Commonwealth to engage in pragmatic idealism once more.
Dr Harshan Kumarasingham is a Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Edinburgh.