Commonwealth is not the Empire – why Britain must reflect on her imperial experience for Brexit success

31st Mar 2017
Commonwealth is not the Empire – why Britain must reflect on her imperial experience for Brexit success

Ali Reza Versi

The vote to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016, was laughably lauded by Brexiteers as Britain’s ‘independence day’. From Provincia Britannia, to Hastings, to the Glorious Revolution, to the age of Empire, a study of Britain’s classical past would indicate, she has never been so. One can observe Britain’s story, is somewhat of an inequitable product of consequence and cause – Britain has been a determinant in shaping the world as well as a subject of it. Thus as she embarks on her post Brexit future in the pursuit of deeper ties, with former dominions, now members of the Commonwealth, it would be imprudent not to reflect on Britain’s imperial experience.

It has been an assuagement for some historians concerned with Britain’s imperial past to ascribe the collapse of the Empire as a corollary of movements averse to British cultural and ideological dominance. One would contest that this is not entirely accurate. There was a varying degree of loyalty to the crown within independence movements. Gandhi elucidated his vision of ‘English rule without the English’, clearly no more radical than his predecessor Gokhale – both, ultimately, were colonial nationalists. The Straits Chinese of Malaya went further in their publication of their ‘Elementary Guide’ for Straits Chinese during the Great War, in claiming the perfect model citizen of the Empire. Though not to exonerate Britain from her numerous malfeasances over the term of her Empire, there was no absence of affinity to Britain. Though fundamentally conditional, these attitudes expressed are testament to a vision of self-determination inclusive of British institutional ideals. An independent India did not disassemble its arms of administration, parliamentary democracy was mostly adopted and until today, Elizabeth II is still Queen in 12 nations.

This precedent is one that should not be ignored and the task, in this respect, for the UK Government, is to model Britain into an attractive proposition for today’s challenges, for Commonwealth nations, as it was in yesterday’s pursuit of independence. Certainly, this is not understood to be an era where Britain fails to learn from its former dominions, the Department of Education ought to consider the successes of Australia’s and Singapore’s education system. But its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the fastest growing economy in the G7, a member of NATO and home for 10 of the world’s top 50 universities compels Britain to further its internationalism. It could be argued, in the same manner that the UK closely represented the views of Washington in Brussels in advance of Atlantacist relations, a third of the world’s population could rely on the United Kingdom as their advocate on the international stage.

Perhaps one of the greatest failures of British foreign policy over the course of its membership of the EU is that there was no concerted effort to model Europe in the image of Britain. Germany took this opportunity in successfully attaining proportional block voting following reunification, expanding membership of the Union and now defines much of the EU’s direction. This missed opportunity cannot be afforded in with the Commonwealth. While a political union is unfeasible and unwarranted, any future amelioration of relations must have political, economic and cultural interests, reflective of contemporaneous common purpose – not those of the past – at its core. The Indian Government’s wish to grant more of its citizens – its future industrialists, scientists, academics – to study in the UK through equitable visa conditions, should not be ignored, nor Australian wishes for a free trade agreement that would allow health professionals permitted to practice in one nation to be afforded the same right in the other.

If Britain can be the vehicle to achieve the interest of its Commonwealth allies notwithstanding the substantial benefit it too draws from those interests, it will replicate its success in the affirmation of its ideals in its immediate post-colonial era. Incontrovertibly, the Commonwealth is not the Empire, but a reflection on imperial experience, is no hindrance to mutual benefit in the years to come.

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