The tendency of critics, including not a few officials, academics and columnists, is to dismiss the Commonwealth today: one typical so-called authority describes it as “an irrelevant institution afflicted by imperialist amnesia.” This springs from what they think they see through the lens of officialdom and the lens of the past.
But in the age of digital connectivity, global networks are everything: and the Commonwealth happens to be the largest. Technology has empowered networked structures of all kinds against traditional hierarchies of governance, with their inevitably centralising traits. And whatever its origins, this suits what is today a disparate and voluntary club of nations just fine.
Britain has spent much of the past five years consumed by a row about whether to be part of a transnational Union defined by geography and treaty. That argument was important but we should not allow it to blind us to the very different forms of linkage in a voluntary non-treaty organisation like the Commonwealth. These are welded as much by enterprise and trade, by civil society concerns and by common everyday life and work interests, as through Governments—or even more so. Skilled and light touch coordination is required at the centre and needs strengthening: it will be worth keeping an eye on the challenge Kenya’s defence minister, Monica Juma, is making to incumbent Patricia Scotland in the Attorney General role. But however that plays out, power and momentum will have to come more than ever from the grass roots.
Media channels tend to have no room or slots for this kind of mass connectivity—which comes under neither Government nor Business nor Culture headings—but it is re-shaping the modern world. Networks never sleep. The future of international relations is going be conducted far more through interest groups, all the professions, city twinning, shared technology, research, university and business initiatives, and a thousand other connections, than through official channels and trade agreements.
The Zoom experience, which has mushroomed in the last year, has increased the value of such characteristics of the Commonwealth system relative to geographical ties, and opened doors to new initiatives. Technology now swiftly gathers into one “room” hundreds of participants from across the planet, where a mere handful could be assembled before.
Bodies like the Commonwealth of Learning, already one of the largest distance-learning organisations in the world, can now have continuous meetings and contacts at new levels of frequency. Through the Association of Commonwealth Universities, scholarly exchange and tutorship can be lifted from cold text to friendly conversation in an instant. Intimate cooperation on areas far outside trade and culture, such as security and defence, can be opened up as never before. In short it gives a new depth to the concept of Global Britain, which is otherwise in constant danger of looking like a hollow slogan.
The recent ruckus over Australian submarines, and who helps build them, is a glorious example of a mishandling which could have been greatly assuaged by giving it a Commonwealth dimension—while notoriously inept American diplomacy waited in the background. But the Commonwealth, unwisely forgotten, received no mention in the public presentation of this project.
With the English language as the protocol of the planet, and with the soft power of influence and persuasion being the prime currency of international exchange, the new world-wide conditions fit the open hand of the Commonwealth system like the proverbial glove.