Ah, the Empire (Photo: Jonund, via)
In October of 2011, Guy Sebastian, winner of the first Australian Idol series, took to the stage in Perth and performed a song he had composed especially for the occasion. Against a backdrop blazoned with words like "Dream", "Beauty" and "Development" – and to an audience including Queen Elizabeth – Sebastian sang with auto-tuned gusto. "We are a generation / and together we will not be moved / here as one we stand / with a mission that we won't refuse."
He was inaugurating the biennial Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting (CHOGM), an occasion when heads of state meet to discuss the issues confronting the Commonwealth – that peculiar institution formerly know as the Commonwealth of Nations and, before that, the British Empire.
The banality of Sebastian's lyrics reveals a lot about the Commonwealth, an institution that has never known what its "mission" really is. In the 2011 Perth meeting, the issues to be resolved by this coalition of "some of the world's largest, smallest, poorest and richest countries", as the Commonwealth loves to describe itself, were how they would celebrate Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee and, in a question raised by David Cameron – who turned up late because he was busy at a European Union summit – the reformation of hereditary succession of the British throne. The meeting was one of many in which the Commonwealth's pointlessness was made clear.
There was, however, one small development, tucked away under Chapter 4, Section A, Subsection 1 of the CHOGM's concluding communiqué, which has suddenly become relevant in the run-up to Brexit: an agreement between 13 Commonwealth countries in Africa to begin "formal negotiations to create an African Free Trade Area, covering 26 countries from the Cape to Cairo by 2014".
The agreement, which didn't turn into anything by 2014, made its way into a story this week about the government's post-Brexit orientation to the world. According to The Times, the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, will be meeting Commonwealth Trade Ministers in London to try to boost trade links with African Commonwealth countries. The 2011 Perth agreement has been cited as evidence that African Commonwealth countries are keen to create "free trade zones" – and Britain wants in.
Unnamed Whitehall officials who are sceptical about an African free trade zone featuring the former colonial master have called the plan derisively, and offensively, "Empire 2.0".
I've written in this column about the way Brexit is mobilised and sustained by imperial delusions – a misremembering of the past, according to which economic relations under Empire are euphemised as "old friendships". The "Empire 2.0" development confirms this, and shows that the Brexiteer strategy of turning to the Commonwealth has real traction with the government now that it has to make up for an expected shortfall in European trade.
Britain is relying on at least two arguments to justify this pivot to the Commonwealth. One is cultural. It claims that unlike Europe, with its different languages and legal systems, the Commonwealth has "shared values, a common language, familiar institutions and similar legal and regulatory systems". There's an ineffable bond between Commonwealth members – let's call it, say, the historical legacy of imperialism – and Brexit is the perfect opportunity to exploit it. In fact, according to the Commonwealth's press release for this week's meeting, the shared culture between Commonwealth nations make them "19 to 20 percent" more likely to trade with each other as compared to "non-Commonwealth partners".
If you think that sounds specious, you're right. According to a paper published in 2012 by Sir Ronald Sanders, a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the reason there's a higher level of trade between some Commonwealth nations is because of "proximity, competitive prices and ease of transport". It's not because of shared culture; it's because they're next to each other. Moreover, as Sanders points out in his paper – which is called "A Commonwealth Free Trade Area is neither likely nor desirable" – 80 percent of all Commonwealth country exports "are directed to countries outside the Commonwealth", and intra-Commonwealth trade is increasingly insignificant.
"If all the talk of reinvigorating the Commonwealth with a free trade area that gives preferential access to Britain seems to fly in the face of reality, then the government probably knows this."
The second argument Brexiteers like to use is ethical, claiming that Britain has an obligation to forge new trade links with Commonwealth nations because it "abandoned" them when it turned to a protectionist Europe in the 1970s and, accordingly, had to cut off all Commonwealth trade deals it had outside the European Economic Community.
Again, this is misleading. Although it's true that Britain turned away from the Commonwealth and towards the EU, this was because its capitalist class saw European integration as a more profitable, long-term venture than trying to keep the corpse of Empire alive. It also ignores the fact that the EU, with British diplomatic encouragement, has been slowly integrating African commonwealth countries into free trade deals for decades.
Peg Murray-Evans makes that point in her paper "Myths of Commonwealth Betrayal". She says that any ambitious post-Brexit deal between the UK and its former Commonwealth countries will have to reckon with the fact that the majority of them have been incorporated into complex EU trading relationships that'll be difficult to "disentangle".
These deals have taken decades to finalise and, in many cases, the progress has been slow, not because of EU protectionism, but because "African governments on the whole were not persuaded of the merits of comprehensive trade liberalisation" – free trade deals signed with powerful nations have a tendency to destroy the domestic industries of developing countries. If African governments were uneasy about free trade with the EU – which has a much higher negotiating capacity than Britain – then they're unlikely to sign anything comprehensive with Britain soon, especially before Brexit.
As Professor Philip Murphy stated, giving evidence to a Foreign Affairs Committee report on the future of the Commonwealth in 2012, "creating the Commonwealth as a great economic bloc was never a starter even in the heyday of the empire. It was briefly dreamt of in the 1930s, but it's a non-starter now."
If all the talk of reinvigorating the Commonwealth with a free trade area that gives preferential access to Britain seems to fly in the face of reality, then the government probably knows this. Perhaps it's a negotiating tactic (like the threat to turn Britain into a "tax haven"), designed to give the appearance of a long-term economic strategy outside the EU if access to the Single Market doesn't end up being "frictionless".
But if "Empire 2.0" really is a genuine policy rather than the intimation of one – if the Empire-fetishising Tory right think the Commonwealth is a passive resource waiting to be exploited by Britain (again) – then it's a fantastic delusion: the kind that could only be sustained by a nation that had no idea where it has been or where it is going.