By Ken Olende
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The Commonwealth is a club for a declining empire

This article is over 7 years, 6 months old
Issue 2413

The Commonwealth is one of the British Empire’s last vestiges—indeed, the games were launched as the British Empire Games in 1930.

In 1954 they became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. In 1970 they were the British Commonwealth Games, and from 1978 have been known as just the Commonwealth Games.

But what is the Commonwealth? Its website gushes, “Commonwealth policies are shaped by member countries, who have an equal say on decisions affecting them.” There was no talk of equality in the British Empire. 

A divide emerged between the “white” dominions and the colonies. From 1926 Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland—later incorporated into Canada—and the Irish Free State, were supposed to have an equal say in matters of governance.

The rulers of the first four wanted to push for their interests internationally, but could see advantages to being within the British orbit. 

It was these powers that pushed for a Commonwealth. The first Empire games was held in Canada in 1930.

The Commonwealth was officially launched when the dominions were granted independence in 1931. They also saw it in their interests for other “white” countries to set up competing teams. 

England, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have separate teams. That’s why the game’s governing body Commonwealth Games Federation has 71 members, while the Commonwealth has only 53. 

But while the dominions were keen to play up their relations to Britain, why did the rest of the British Empire, much of which fought tooth and nail to get rid of imperial rule?

The British had maintained the empire by force, dealing with nationalist leaders by sending what they called a “punitive expedition”. 

Typically that meant flattening any nationalist leader’s home village with gun boats or troops. The use of massacres became harder with news photography and telegraphed reporting, something they learned following the Amritsar massacre in 1919.

 Yet following the Second World War, Britain still acted like one of the “great powers”, and hoped to hang on to its empire. But Britain’s relative economic decline and widespread resistance throughout the 1950s made it obvious that this wasn’t going to happen. 

Its only option was to retreat, hanging on to as much influence as possible. This is what the Commonwealth represented. Its success can be seen in the fact that both Kenya and Malaya became members—the countries where Britain used the most savage repression to deal with independence movements.


When independence was on the cards, the governor would form a legislative council with “the better sort of natives”, who were encouraged to perceive themselves as “successors” to colonial rule. 

The idea was to exclude or co-opt socialists and agitators. The Colonial Office’s staff actually rose from 372 in 1935 to 1,661 in 1954 as the empire declined. Preparing new, sympathetic rulers took more initiative than counting the loot as it came in.

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that joining the Commonwealth was unthinkable, but was quickly personally championing it.

Britain argued in independence negotiations that membership provided access to the “top table”, already granted to the former dominions. It was never an honest offer, but it was enough to bring in most former colonies.

This resulted in the Commonwealth redefining itself in 1949 as consisting of “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”. 

The majority of former colonies joined as they gained independence, apart from the Middle Eastern countries. 

It had been the last area of British imperial expansion following the First World War—and Britain had had the least time to create a class of sympathetic rulers. 

But other countries have actually applied to join—mostly desperately poor ones, including Mozambique and Rwanda.

Many governments thought membership would see them taken seriously and as a source of protection against other imperial vultures. 

In reality, it has offered little of either. Commonwealth membership did not save African countries from rapacious “structural adjustment programmes”.  

Conquest and asset-stripping by the British Empire has become training and preparation for a day that Britain’s rulers hoped would never come. In reality imperialist power structures remained largely unchanged. The British government was cynical about its economic relationship with the Commonwealth. 

It shifted to work more with the US and western Europe, as it became more profitable for British capitalism. In the 1950s workers from Commonwealth countries were encouraged to come and fill the labour shortage in Britain. 

Today Commonwealth residents require visas and work permits, and European Union (EU) citizens have been encouraged to work in Britain. But West Indians and eastern Europeans were equally blamed for unemployment caused by capitalist crises. 

The government clamped down on Commonwealth immigration in the late 1960s and all parties are now scapegoating EU migrants. The Commonwealth cannot escape its imperial roots and is not, and never has been an equal organisation.

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