“THERE’S been an existential question mark over the Commonwealth for some time,” says a seasoned diplomat in its secretariat in London. “The Commonwealth has been dead, absolutely dead, for the past eight years,” laments Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society (and a former Economist writer), taking a swipe at the outgoing secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, an urbane Indian diplomat who has run the show since 2008. As Queen Elizabeth nears 90 after 64 years as its titular head, some wonder if the club will survive when she goes.
Ask citizens of the 53 countries that make up the Commonwealth what it is for, and most will shrug. Its most visible moment, which happens every four years, is a sports jamboree. A few years ago the Royal Commonwealth Society, which promotes the club, conducted a poll asking if respondents would be “sorry or appalled if your country left the Commonwealth”. People in its poorer members were likeliest to answer “yes”; those in Britain, Australia and Canada tended to indifference. Few knew much about it; a quarter of Jamaicans thought its head was Barack Obama.
The modern Commonwealth was born in 1949, partly thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, who had declared his country a republic but wanted to stay friends with the former imperial power and other former British dominions. As other ex-colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean joined, “Commonwealth values” (never precisely defined) were promoted, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa struggled to shed their white masters. Under a dynamic secretary-general from Guyana, Sir Shridath (“Sonny”) Ramphal, from 1975 to 1990, the grouping gained clout in world councils. Full Story