The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s tour of Canada is reaffirming the strength of one of the great global institutions, says Peter Oborne as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend a Canadian citizenship ceremony in Quebec. There is no mistaking the overwhelming affection with which the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been greeted on their inaugural royal visit to Canada. That is, in part, because everything they are doing resonates with a shared history. Take their first engagement: a visit to Canada’s National War Memorial was a poignant reminder that Canadian troops had served alongside the British in the two great world wars of the last century. Government House, where the couple stayed in Ottawa, was visited by King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales, in 1860. In 1951, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were entertained there, secretly bringing with them a draft proclamation in case George VI, already very ill, should die while they were away.
The crowds who have flocked to see William and Catherine are surely sensing this profound link between our two nations. Alexandra Anghel, who waited five hours, articulated it very clearly after meeting them: “William’s lineage is amazing, he’s walking history – I can’t believe I saw walking history.” She was absolutely right. When the second in line to the throne travels to Canada, it is like visiting family rather than some foreign country – not least because his grandmother, the Queen, is head of state in Canada. Such is the invisible strength of the Commonwealth, the association of independent countries that emerged out of the wreckage of the British Empire at the end of the Second World War. For many years it has been automatic in progressive circles to sneer at the Commonwealth as a meaningless relic of our imperial past. New Labour, with its hatred of British history, symbolised this attitude. Tony Blair, for example, never took the Commonwealth Conference – the remarkable biennial event attended by heads of government from all 54 Commonwealth countries – very seriously.
This was because the Commonwealth never fitted into New Labour’s relentless modernising vision. Blair regarded traditional British values and identities as xenophobic, if not racist. Indeed, the Commonwealth does not rate a single mention in his autobiography, whereas there are endless pages devoted to the United States and the European Union. But I would argue that it is Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s poodle-like relationship with the United States, and the former’s slavish worship of the European Union, that now looks out of date, while the Commonwealth is more relevant than ever. Consider the facts: just under two billion people, approximately one third of the world’s population, live in Commonwealth countries. More than half of them are under 25. They come from every continent and subscribe to every great world religion. The Commonwealth is cheap:the cost to Britain of our membership is barely 20p per head, and a fraction of the £50 per head swallowed by the European Union (and that’s before the money spent by Britain bailing out bankrupt eurozone countries). It is true that the Commonwealth lacks a heavyweight administrative machine, unlike the European Union, the United Nations or Nato, but in the 21st century this may well be an advantage. The nature of diplomacy is changing very fast. With the gradual fading of the United States, and the semi-collapse of the European Union, we are moving away from a world dominated by one, or at most two, great powers. Instead, we have entered an informal world of independent but nevertheless interrelated nation states. The Commonwealth is ideally suited to this new world, with its multitude of informal connections, many stretching back centuries. Furthermore, the Commonwealth is devoted to the promotion of humane and democratic values.
But unlike the neo-Conservatives, it does not try to promote these values through invasion. It uses quiet diplomacy and gentle pressure. Pakistan, for example, was quietly induced back into the Commonwealth after its membership was suspended following a military coup in 1999, something that, given current concerns about that nation, we should be very grateful for. There is one urgent cause for concern, however. The central reason for the success of the Commonwealth has been the Queen. She is the talismanic figure at the heart of it all, and has been present at every Commonwealth Conference for the past 60 years. She knows most Commonwealth leaders personally, and many of them are now old friends. When she dies the Commonwealth will be thrown into crisis. Handled in the wrong way, the institution will swiftly collapse. Certain things will have to change. There is no hard and fast rule that a British monarch should be head of the Commonwealth, as the Queen has been. Indeed, there is an argument for selecting the next head from among one of the other member states. Ten years ago that choice was obvious, and Nelson Mandela would have been chosen by acclaim. There is also no reason why the Commonwealth should continue to be based in London, home of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Last year the Marquis of Lothian, a former Conservative Party chairman and shadow foreign secretary, made a radical proposal: “Britain should accept that centring the Commonwealth in London leaves it open to accusations of carrying the shades of empire. It should be re-based in India, which itself has the potential to become a powerful inner core of a living network of relations that cross continents and have unparalleled global reach.”
Lord Lothian’s suggestion opens up an alternative vision of a future British foreign policy. We would no longer be tied so closely into Washington and Brussels, two connections that have served us so badly over the past two decades. We could look instead to a wider world, and indeed a Commonwealth based in democratic Delhi could prove an important counterbalance to the stealthy rise of totalitarian China, as it seeks stealthily to build its regional influence in the Far East through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Over the past few decades Britain has been unlucky in its leaders. With only a few exceptions they have been hostile or blind to British history. The two greatest offenders were Edward Heath, who led us into the European Union, and Tony Blair, with his uncritical connection with the United States. Throughout this period our political class has turned its back on the traditional network of alliances, and the Commonwealth has only really been sustained thanks to the immense personal charisma of the monarch. Fortunately, the Cameron government is starting to engage once more with the Commonwealth after more than two decades of neglect (even Margaret Thatcher fell out with the Queen over Thatcher’s refusal to take the Commonwealth seriously). Amazing to relate, but during all the New Labour years not a single British foreign secretary visited Australia or New Zealand, two of our oldest and closest Commonwealth allies. William Hague travelled there earlier this year, the first foreign secretary in 17 years to do so. His prime purpose was to prepare for the forthcoming Commonwealth conference, to be held in Perth.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron sent out a welcome personal signal that he values the Commonwealth by making his first major foreign trip as prime minister last summer to India. Not for the first time, the Queen has been wiser than her politicians. Although it is rooted deep in our history, the Commonwealth is in truth an organisation ideally suited to the 21st century. She has sustained an institution which retains great value. It is important that other members of her family understand this. For while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first choice of a foreign country to visit is welcome, their second is regrettable. They are travelling from Canada to the United States. They are guaranteed a warm reception, but for the wrong reasons. They will be fêted as celebrities, not welcomed as members of a family of nations with which we have common values. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are the most glamorous young couple in the world. They have the capacity to do great things, not just for the monarchy but also for Britain on their foreign trips and it is the Commonwealth countries that should be their priority in the years to come.
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A royal salute? More WWI style like propaganda. ‘Them krauts is comin’. Blimey!’ Krauts from within or without, let the reader decide! With 4/5ths of the world population being non-Anglo, making up less than 5% of trade worldwide (circa pre-crisis 2009), and $8.981 trillion debt (circa 2010), and only the 7th largest economy worldwide. it is inappropriate that a single family from this country hardly a leader in ANYTHING (from reports even the legal system there is collapsing from inability to legislate) head the so-called Commonwealth nations. Why not the King of Saudi Arabia? Why not the Emperor of Japan? Or any African King or extant Indian Maharaja? How about the King of Morocco? King of Thailand? Try the Agong of Malaysia even. Do these personages need to be under the Commonwealth which will ALWAYS be headed by the Windsor family who’s parliament has resulted in a country that has consistently been complicit in incursions in the Middle East for the last 2 decades? This a dated remnant of neo-colonialism, even as super powers of the BRICS are leading. Why should the leader of the Commonwealth (or is it common ‘poverty’) be a Windsor (aka half German Saxe-Couburg-Gotha who changed their name to avoid being lynched by the English locals during WWI/II when Adolf was preparing to overrun England)? I say either OPEN that position of Head of Commonwealth to OTHER non-white ROYALS or disband the anglo-glorifying organisation. To be fair, all the above mentioned Royals should head the Commonwealth in turn (a life term multiplied by the number of Royal families from all ethno-political regions that is . . . ) before the Windsors (Gothas) lead the Commonwealth again (600 years at feels about right . . . see the Windsors in 2611 ). Share the leadership of the Commonwealth or lose credibility with the Multipolar World Order.