The need to capitalise on the Commonwealth

Theresa May’s African tour encompassed three countries this week: South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya. Nigeria and South Africa were natural choices as the continent’s largest economies with respective GDPs of $376 billion and $349 billion in 2017. Given she is on a trade mission, this is to be expected as larger economies offer larger trade deals. So why visit Kenya with a GDP of only $79 billion when six other African nations (Egypt, Algeria, Angola, Sudan, Morocco, and Ethiopia) have larger economies? It is because Kenya, like South Africa and Nigeria, is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

In the Brexit campaign and since, much discussion has focused on how Britain will forge trade relations following her departure from the EU. One recurring topic in this conversation has been the Commonwealth. With well-established diplomatic links and cultural ties, there should be no doubt that the Commonwealth offers possibilities for social, political, and economic benefit. Yet this is not simply a mineral to be mined, but rather a flower to nurture. The Commonwealth offers as much as we are prepared to put into it and for Britain to harvest the benefits requires a greater understanding of the organisation.

Unfortunately, understanding of the Commonwealth is in short supply. While head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Boris Johnson admitted he did not know what the Commonwealth flag looked like. This is embarrassing, but his failure to identify the flag puts him in the majority: can you picture the flag or even state what colours it consists of? Indeed, for most people in the UK, the Commonwealth’s principle purpose is the Commonwealth Games — an Olympics we can actually win. As such, there is little popular support for policies orientated towards embracing it further.

The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014

The Commonwealth’s lack of cultural penetration feeds into a wider misunderstanding of what it can achieve and creates the perception of it as an organisation with little practical use. This view does the Commonwealth a disservice. For comparison, consider France’s equivalent: the French Union. Founded in 1946, it oversaw a continual stream of members leaving the organisation. By the early 1960s, it had been rebranded as the French Community and only a third of the original members remained. France’s lack of faith in the organisation was such that there were serious considerations towards joining the Commonwealth itself in 1956. Its eventual dissolution in 1995 was merely an overdue bureaucratic decision. States saw no purpose in it once they gained their independence.

In comparison, the Commonwealth has not just survived, it has thrived since the modern form was created in the 1949 London Declaration. Growing from a collection of eight nations, it now encompasses almost two and a half billion people across 53 nations. As well as including the overwhelming majority of Britain’s former colonies, both Mozambique and Rwanda joined despite never having been in the British Empire.

The current version of the Commonwealth flag, “a lovely flag” according to Boris Johnson

States clearly feel it offers them something precious. Indeed there is a measurable advantage. Trade between fellow members benefits from the “Commonwealth effect”. The 2015 Commonwealth Trade Review estimated that it resulted in, on average, 20% more trade and 10% more foreign direct investment between non-Commonwealth countries than would otherwise be the case. Even the most conservative estimate reckons the cost of trade between Commonwealth countries is at least 10–15% lower. This means the potential profit from trading with fellow Commonwealth countries is intrinsically higher than trade with non-Commonwealth countries. This must be capitalised on by taking further steps towards our Commonwealth family.

This is not to say that we should look to the Commonwealth to act as a surrogate EU. As I have previously outlined, international blocs fatally weaken themselves when they expand beyond their purpose. The purpose of the Commonwealth was clear: maintain positive diplomatic and trade relationships with former colonies of the Empire. At present, it is a relaxed organisation with few concrete ties. Reorganising the Commonwealth into a trade bloc or customs union would strain and imperil the organisation. Rather the focus should be on using the pre-established diplomatic ties that it provides. These can fast-track trade deals, improve relations, and build a trusted network of allied nations.

Key will be increased immigration access. Anti-immigration sentiments were crucial to the decision to leave the EU, so this must be done with care and respect to the British electorate’s sensibilities. Yet opportunities exist. Under the EU, Britain’s immigration policy was forced to discriminate against non-EU applicants. The government was unable to control EU migration and so clamped down on the only migration they could control: non-EU migration. Now that immigration from EU countries will fall under government control again, space can be found to accommodate greater migration from Commonwealth countries while overseeing a fall in net migration.

Theresa May meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

In November 2016, the government had an opportunity to capitalise on this. India was seeking greater accessibility to UK universities for her students in return for beneficial trade deals. Outside of the USA, no country’s higher education system is comparable to Britain’s: there are more British institutions in the top ten of QS World University Rankings 2018 (4) than European ones in the top fifty (3). Through our universities, we provide a world-class education; in return, foreign students subsidise domestic students, develop a life-long fondness for Britain, and help spread our cultural and political values.

Following her six years trying to control immigration as Home Secretary, Theresa May’s decision to reject it was as predictable as it was foolish. The reluctance to consider India’s offer highlighted a close-minded approach that must be changed. However, the issue goes beyond May. Anti-Commonwealth feeling is ingrained as the Windrush scandal demonstrated earlier this year. We have historically betrayed our Commonwealth family; to continue to do so would undermine ourselves economically as much as it has morally.

Theresa May visiting Nigeria as part of her African tour

On the face of it, May’s tour of Africa appears to mark a change. As well as reconnecting with key members of the Commonwealth, positive progress was made on creating an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the UK and the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and Mozambique (all nations involved — South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland form the SACU — are Commonwealth members). It ensures that the UK will maintain the arrangements of the EU-SADC EPA post-Brexit. However, it leaves much to be decided by future talks. It offers no suggestion of a redirection of trade or evolution in our relationship. For the tour to be remembered for more than Theresa May’s dancing, those talks must provide substantial developments.

In May, it was agreed that Prince Charles will take over as head of the Commonwealth from Queen Elizabeth II. It was a tremendous coup as it secured Britain’s place at the head of the organisation for the foreseeable future. Promisingly, it also showed commitment within the state apparatus. However, it will matter little if the government does not match that commitment and reconnect Britain to the Commonwealth.

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British politics, foreign policy, and cricket.