Britain sees itself as a trading country, and as it left the EU, its pro-Brexit politicians argued that leaving would be easy. Global Britain would forge new trade deals with the United States and China, and ministers spoke eloquently about re-establishing old ties with the members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a political grouping of countries most of which had been British colonies. This showed the triumph of naïve hope over experience, for it assumed that the states of the Commonwealth, of which Queen Elizabeth is the head and her eldest son Prince Charles has been her designated successor since 2018, were eager to forge new ties with Britain, instead of strengthening ties with the EU. (Elizabeth is the head of state of only 15 of the Commonwealth’s 56 members.)
Britain sought to seek its old flame, the Commonwealth, even as the countries that make up the grouping were not exactly sure what Britain wanted and whether Britain is what they need, as they have all gone their separate ways. Among the bigger economies, Canada is entwined with the United States or the Pacific; likewise, Australia and New Zealand have long seen their future in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. India is growing but wishes to be seen as a major power at the head table and would not wish to jeopardize ongoing negotiations with the EU over a trade pact with the UK. British politicians are going to find navigating fresh agreements with dozens of countries and rewriting many laws hard. Other Commonwealth countries have grown into economies bigger than Britain’s (e.g., Singapore) or have a different set of priorities (as with much of Africa).
Before Elizabeth’s coronation, British citizens could travel wherever they wished at will, without needing visas; today they must plead with and pay a handsome amount (by some accounts, £150 million) to Rwanda, to process refugees seeking asylum in the UK.
The colonizers and the colonized
Johnson has made much of revitalizing relations with Commonwealth members. At the recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, Johnson spoke eloquently of reviving older ties, but some countries that can be part of the Commonwealth (being former colonies) have no interest (the United States never joined; Ireland left in the 1920s; the Gambia more recently), and with the addition first of Mozambique, then Rwanda, and now Togo and Gabon, it is no longer a family of nations that were once part of the British Empire.
Indeed, the Commonwealth is threatening to become another large body of disparate countries with few real links with one another and no cohesive ideology binding them together, or ties with Britain, for that matter, except, perhaps, a vague acceptance that English is an important language. It might arguably be less cohesive than the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the grouping of countries and regions where French is the lingua franca.
Clearly, the former colonies look at the past quite differently. Three books published over the last decade – none by a native-born British writer – have revealed how the colonized see the colonizer. The Indian politician (and former diplomat) Shashi Tharoor took part in, and easily won, a debate on colonialism at the Oxford Union in 2015. There he said India did not ask for compensation or reparation but was owed an apology. The house voted with him.
His speech had an electrifying effect in the age of social media, and virtually every Indian, regardless of party affiliation, cheered Tharoor. The debate led Tharoor to write the book, An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire in India, published in 2016, which refuted British claims of superiority, questioned the benefits of British rule, castigated British governors and their subordinates for their profligacy and arrogance, exposed their corruption, and ridiculed the conceit which has taken root in Britain – that the British rule was a divine dispensation, which civilized the natives.