Where can 'Global Britain' fit in a global Commonwealth?
By James Powney
Brexit is an opportunity to remodel the UK’s relations with the rest of the Commonwealth. Hitherto the Commonwealth has been seen in Britain either as a not very exciting vestige of an Empire, now a long way in the past, or as somewhere right wing fantasists like Nigel Farage can play out their dreams of a colonial past that never existed and probably has no appeal for the countries that they would like to order about.
But the Commonwealth could be a platform for Britain to project itself globally in a much more positive way on the most pressing needs of today.
With about a quarter of the world’s population, and members in every part of the globe, the Commonwealth network has the potential for Britain to make a genuinely global contribution to global problems.
Countries around the world desperately need help in co-ordinating their response to the medical emergency wrought by Covid-19. The UK has one of the most advanced medical and healthcare industries in the world, and Commonwealth contacts could benefit from UK input. It is important to recognise that this would be a two-way process in which Britain would learn and benefit as much as other Commonwealth partners.
This could include the sharing of equipment and information about how to combat the virus. The sharing of any future vaccine doses and the possible procurement of more in the most economical way, and a vast network where healthcare professionals could learn form each other. Looking to the future, the global reach of the Commonwealth could potentially help create and maintain an early warning network for future emergencies as well as helping to co-ordinate the response to future outbreaks.
Championing this cause could help the Labour Party lead a truly internationalist response that would show the current UK government’s chauvinism and sub-Churchillian rhetoric for the empty words that they are.
Before Covid-19 wiped everything else off the headlines, the climate emergency was widely seen as the most urgent problem facing humanity. The Commonwealth is an ideal organisation to meet this challenge on a global scale. Indeed, an international approach is the only way to solve emissions, which the UK accounts for only a tiny proportion of the whole.
The UK could have a role through encouraging financial backers in London to take more account of the climate change costs. At some point they will have to face up to this in any case, but it is absurd that countries like India are still using coal for more than half of its electricity at the same time as being formally committed to reducing carbon emissions. Changes to project financing could ease the transition to a more sustainable power infrastructure. As well as the UK having plenty to give in terms of its expertise, other countries may have more experience dealing with the new conditions and effects of climate change, such as increased flooding and droughts, in ways the UK could learn from.
Protection of Faith
The new Head of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles, has often said that he wants to be seen as the 'Defender of Faith' (rather than 'the Faith'). Under Archbishop Welby, the Anglican Church has been one of the most forward voices against the persecution of religious minorities around the world, and many other faith groups in Britain similarly preach the importance of greater toleration.
At the same time, many countries in the Commonwealth do not always meet these high ideals. In some cases, countries may tolerate low level harassment, but sometimes minorities can be subject to torture and even death. The Commonwealth network’s own plethora of religious beliefs would lend real credibility to this multi-cultural cause, and help to create an international benchmark for freedom of religion.
A renewal of these agendas would build on the Commonwealth’s existing and previous commitments to improving healthcare, responding to the climate emergency and defending human rights to influence societies around the world for the better. Britain could be at the forefront of making this happen, turning our colonial past into a much more optimistic future.
James Powney is a former councillor and a Labour and Cooperative Party member in Brent Central CLP.