One Region
September 3, 2013

The Commonwealth: in black and white

Boris Johnson, the mayor of the British capital city, London, has joined in a chorus of voices in the Conservative Party that has been calling for Britain to abandon its membership of the European Union (EU) and to look instead to the Commonwealth of Nations as “countries that offer immense opportunities for British goods, people, services and capital”.{{more}}

This is a huge reversal from 1971 when the then leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of Britain, Edward Heath, told the House of Commons that the idea that the Commonwealth might become “an effective economic and political let alone military bloc had never been realised”. On the contrary, he argued, it was generally accepted that that trade with the Commonwealth overseas, unlike that with the European Common Market, held no prospect of dynamic growth. Britain’s subsequent entry to what is now the European Union (EU) in 1973 put an end to any further development of the Commonwealth as a preferential trading group.

After 40 years of fundamentally changed global trade arrangements, the Commonwealth no longer offers opportunities as a preferential trading bloc. Those in Britain who continue to pit the Commonwealth as an alternative to the EU are really raising a straw man to bolster their wish to get out of the EU and the conditions of its membership that they find unacceptable. For the majority of Commonwealth countries, there is little benefit today in trying to assemble a Commonwealth trading group, even if it would not be severely hamstrung by World Trade Organisation rules that disallow preferential trading arrangements for all but the poorest of poor countries. This is not to say that individual Commonwealth countries could not intensify trade bilaterally.

What is of more current interest about Boris Johnson’s remarks made in Australia and New Zealand is that, in saying that Britain should “raise our eyes beyond Europe” and not think of “ourselves as little Europeans run by Brussels”, he said Britain should open its doors to skilled workers from Commonwealth countries “such as Australia and New Zealand”. He went as far as to say that Britain and Australia should set up a “bilateral Free Labour Mobility Zone”. All of this is an alternative to persons from the EU entering Britain to live and work, and more importantly, benefitting from its social welfare system.

In promoting the idea of skilled workers from the Commonwealth being allowed to enter Britain, Mr Johnson mentioned only Australia and New Zealand, whose populations are predominantly white people. But, since he is the mayor of London – a city with a huge multi-ethnic population drawn from all over the Commonwealth and elsewhere – it has to be assumed that Mr Johnson mentioned only these two countries because he happened to be visiting them when he made his remarks.

Of course, it is every country’s prerogative to enter into bilateral migration arrangements with any other country that it considers appropriate. In this connection, it is perfectly feasible that Britain could set up “bilateral Free Labour Mobility Zones” with Australia and New Zealand. But, if it were to do so while applying stricter immigration and visa requirements on other Commonwealth countries, such as those in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, whose populations are not predominantly white, the arrangements would be seen as inequitable with overtones of racism. Such a move could be seen as a “black” and “white” division and it would diminish regard for the merits of the Commonwealth association. Further, it would not advance Britain’s desire to intensify trade with, and investment from, Commonwealth countries such as India, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa which are among the top Commonwealth growing economies.

Britain faces a predicament over the free movement of people in the EU. Because of its more generous social welfare system and its greater economic development than all of the newer member states of the EU, it has become a magnet for Eastern Europeans – many of whom do not speak English and have little, if any, appreciation for British culture and traditions. The migration to Britain of Eastern Europeans has caused resentment among Britons, but not only to white ones. People from Commonwealth countries who migrated to Britain in the 1950’s and 60’s, and who have worked all their lives in Britain contributing to the economy and also adhering to its culture and traditions, also resent the influx of European migrants. This is a problem the British government is trying to resolve, but it will not be solved by Mr Johnson’s suggestion that the EU should “stuff it”.

With regard to the Commonwealth, the Eminent Persons Group (of which I was a member and Rapporteur) that made recommendations in 2011 on reform of the Commonwealth to make it relevant to the people and times of the association, recognised that if the Commonwealth is to have value for its peoples, one of the things that could be done is to give recognition to Commonwealth citizenship by providing means of privileged entry in all Commonwealth states. We had recommended the creation of an expert group to report to the 2013 Heads of Government meeting on ways in which entry by Commonwealth citizens to Commonwealth countries on business or holiday might be gradually improved.

A group of three renowned persons from the Ramphal Institute in London has visited 15 Commonwealth countries over the last few months to produce a report and recommendations on easing entry for Commonwealth citizens in various categories including businesspeople and students. The extent to which all governments agree on easing entry requirements for agreed categories, of Commonwealth citizens will indicate the value they place on membership of the Commonwealth.

The point is that Commonwealth countries looking to each other for a deepening of investment, commercial and migration arrangements – based on their common laws, shared language, and declared common values – would help to lift all their economies as well as the quality and benefits of their Commonwealth connection. But they should all pursue such deepening on a pan-Commonwealth basis and in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect that would enhance the Commonwealth Club.

(The Writer is a Consultant, Senior Research Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)

  • Responses and previous commentaries at: