On 9 December 2010, Britain's secretary of state for Foreign and Commonwealth affairs, William Hague, announced a new vision for the Commonwealth. He wants closer ties within this organization, which, after all, bestrides all continents, represents all major religions, and includes the fastest growing and increasingly technologically-advanced economies in the world. Hague further accuses successive Labour governments of neglecting this unique institution.
Hague’s comments are hardly surprising. Britons have always been suspicious of further integration into Europe, and now, given the parlous financial state of Greece, Spain, and Ireland, which threatens to spread, the idea seems worse than ever. Closer ties with the comparatively more economically-sound Canada, Australia, and New Zealand must seem increasingly appealing. India and South Africa are economic giants in their respective continents and closer association with them is also desirable for Britain. It is also desirable for all others involved.
What does this mean for Canada? It is difficult to say. To my knowledge, Hague’s statement has not been reported or commented on in any Canadian media—a strange contrast to the interest shown in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Nevertheless, I want to briefly open a general discussion on the matter.
No one will deny, whether he wants it strengthened or abolished, that the Commonwealth has been neglected. Increasing Americanisation in Canada and the Liberal party’s indifference to Canada’s history (the two perhaps go hand in hand) have gone a long way to demolishing public knowledge of this institution. This is unfortunate, because the Commonwealth is a body which cannot be separated, for obvious reasons, from history or culture—two important factors which are in increasingly short supply all over the world. This makes the Commonwealth both a strong counterweight to Europe’s attempts at union through historical forgetfulness, and also a bulwark against the poverty of American culture. Finally, organisations and agreements such as NATO, NAFTA, and suchlike, are useful and do excellent work, but they do not command the human interest and prestige in which the Commonwealth is steeped.
A resurgent Commonwealth in the 21st century would amount to much more than the endurance of British traditions. Outside the Old Commonwealth (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) such traditions often constitute a shocking travesty, or do not exist at all as in former member Zimbabwe. What is significant is that most Commonwealth countries are compatible in practical ways: they are mainly English-speaking, they often have similar styles of government, derived from Westminster, the common law prevails in them, and there is a similarity of outlook and temperament. Compare this to the European parliament, which has more interpreters than members, or the European Union’s failure to counteract the centrifugal force of nationalism. Consider also deepening political and social division in the United States. The qualities of the Commonwealth listed above are especially true of its oldest members, and Conrad Black’s suggestion of a Primary Commonwealth in which seniority is held by Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and possibly also India, has much to commend itself. Such a body, in comparison with Europe’s lumbering bureaucratic behemoth and the increasingly stagnant United States, would be a paragon of cooperation and flexibility.
Free trade and close cooperation amongst all members of the Commonwealth is unrealistic and, more importantly, undesirable. But consider its oldest members. Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand alone would by no means amount to a small market, and their combined GDP of 5,179,954 million USD (according to the International Monetary Fund 2010) would make it the fourth largest economy in the word, only slightly behind China and Japan. If we include India and South Africa, the combined GDP would be 6,964,388 million USD: the second largest economy in the world after the United States.
Many Canadians will respond with two objections: a) that, since the birth of NAFTA, the USA has been Canada’s best friend and we need no other friends, and b) that the Commonwealth is, somehow, ‘not relevant’—a statement which I have heard often. These are easily dismissed. First, free trade and closer cultural ties with other Commonwealth countries would not undermine Canada’s continued involvement in NAFTA in any way. Nor would it prevent us from pursuing free trade with the European Union, discussions on which are currently underway. But the simple fact is that the United States does not share power with anyone, and Obama has neglected the privileged position once held by what some Americans call the Anglosphere, the English-speaking world led by Britain. Second, comments on the relevancy of the Commonwealth beg the question: ‘relevant to what?’ But obtuse literalism aside, as far as any of the involved parties are concerned, there is nothing irrelevant about governmental and cultural similarity among different countries widely spread across the planet. Nor is there anything irrelevant about forging closer economic and cultural ties among countries who speak the same language, share the same form of government, and value the same things. The Commonwealth presents a unique opportunity to build on Canada’s international ties—ties which Canada has inherited by chance from a polyethnic and global empire.
Canada would have a place of privilege within a resurgent Commonwealth. After Britain, Canada is the oldest self-governing country within the former British Empire. We have now outlived that empire, but our Westminster-style parliament and monarchy, which are products of it, have, since Confederation, given us 143 years of stability and good government. We have had no bloody revolutions as in the United States or France, nor did we succumb in any way to the worst diseases of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism. We have, furthermore, no history of aggression throughout the 20th century, the most violent century mankind has yet undergone. Canada’s much vaunted financial strength in the wake of the Great Recession has been often in the press and should not be overlooked. As Europe sinks deeper into a debt-ridden, bureaucratic morass, and Yankee power wanes, Canada’s enviably stable history and growing economic power may well translate into widespread international clout and political capital. But at present we wield no power over the atrophying giant to the south or a sclerotic Europe, or an awakening China. We are, however, a model for other countries of similar age and size, and are likely to remain so for some time.
This is, of course, contingent on Canada’s finding a role for itself in the 21st century. At the moment we are in danger of withering into irrelevancy, as the recent Wikileaks suggested. The usual liberal shibboleths of peacekeeping, socialised medicine, the charter of rights and freedoms, and the old age pension, however some Canadians boasts about them abroad, do not mean anything to people in other countries and do not translate to power at the negotiating table. In short, Canada needs new plans for the future, new trade agreements, new alliances. Our shared traditions with the Commonwealth suggest an obvious set of allies and trading partners, and it is here that we should turn first.