3 years

Open Essay

Reimagining Her Majesty’s Club

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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Don't rule out a Meghan touch to the Commonwealth

COME MAY 19TH and the Commonwealth might be bouncing along the road to a truly multiracial destiny. The 2.4 billion people of its 53 member countries, almost a third of the world’s population, are drawn from virtually every race under the sun. But the leadership is vested in the mottled pink and grey descendants of a minor German princeling settled in England. May 19th might set the ball rolling for the leadership one day to reflect the dazzling demographic diversity of the 94 per cent of Commonwealth citizens in Asia and Africa.

That’s the date for Britain’s Prince Harry to marry Meghan Markle, who says, “My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American. I’m half Black and half White.” Meghan can only have a role through her husband who now has no official position. It’s whispered that the grand panjandrums of the Commonwealth are discussing this in hushed secrecy and that a ‘high level group’ will recommend a leadership position for him at the CHOGM—horrid acronym for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting— to be held in London from April 16th to 20th. If it does, it may have to contend with Queen Elizabeth who has been Head of the Commonwealth since acceding to the throne in 1952. In The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth, Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and professor of British and Commonwealth History at London University, says she ‘is determined for Prince Charles to inherit this role’. He accuses her of masterminding a relentless but subtle worldwide campaign to ensure it happens.

Indians won’t be surprised at this manipulation for the top job. The feverish string-pulling in New Delhi in 2008 when Manmohan Singh proposed Kamalesh Sharma for the post of Commonwealth secretary-general after reportedly already promising the job to another senior civil servant is still remembered. Nor will Murphy’s poor opinion of Sharma’s performance diminish his aura. Murphy says Sharma’s ineffective predecessor ‘did at least maintain a fairly high public profile and he could certainly not be accused of evading difficult decisions’. Sharma ‘achieved even less without even giving the impression that he was trying very hard’. Without knowing or caring much about the Commonwealth, most Indians glowed with pride at this highest rung abroad an Indian bureaucrat had climbed. The Commonwealth chief inhabits a grand house in Mayfair and walks and talks with the Queen. People who invent titles for almost every public personage must gloat all the more over someone on whom Her Majesty has bestowed the Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order for not flaunting the ‘Sir’.

Although Enoch Powell dismissed the Commonwealth as a ‘gigantic farce’, Arnold Smith, the Canadian first secretary-general, believed historians will consider it ‘the greatest of all Britain’s contributions to Man’s social and political history’. However, it’s not fashionable to praise Britain and even Sharma carefully avoided mentioning the British connection when he called the Commonwealth “the great global good”. Like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it just ‘growed’. The opposite camp’s vociferousness worsens matters. Whenever Kwame Nkrumah, the club’s first African member, mentioned the Commonwealth at a meeting in London, National Front demonstrators yelled, “Do you mean the British Commonwealth?”

A senior Conservative politician, Michael Ancram, 13th Marquess of Lothian, suggests the Commonwealth should abandon London for ‘the emerging powerhouse of India’. The demand is historically logical for today’s Commonwealth reflects India’s determination to eat its cake and have it: a republic satisfied Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian conscience while the monarchical link flattered his English sense of hierarchy. Knowing his man, Clement Attlee waxed eloquent about the royal family as ‘something universal, transcending creeds and races’. But in suggesting King George VI should be President of India, Attlee cannot have known of the intense jockeying for the post. Chakravarti Rajagopalachari hoped (or Nehru hoped for him) that his occupancy of Rashtrapati Bhavan as the first Indian governor-general would extend into the presidentship, while Rajendra Prasad, who had his eye on the job while declaring in true Indian bargaining style he was utterly without worldly ambition, was determined not to let Rajaji stay an extra day.

If the Queen objects to Meghan queening it over the Commonwealth, it has nothing to do with race. Her Majesty’s reputation of being free of prejudice was reinforced when it transpired that alone among global politicians, Nelson Mandela called her “Elizabeth”

Attlee then suggested a title from ‘India’s heroic age’, presumably thinking of an equivalent of the Kaiser-i-Hind Disraeli invented for Queen Victoria when she really wanted to be the ‘Grand Mogul’. Nehru had also to contend with Krishna Menon whose acerbity was reserved for Indians and Americans. ‘He was a really good man,’ Menon wrote of George VI ‘and a greater man than usually believed. He was very thoughtful of us and understood and respected us. … He did far more than is known or need be said to help.’ Nehru accepted the king ‘as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations, and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.’ Mountbatten saw it as his own coup. “I think I can get Congress back into the Commonwealth!!! Hush!” he gushed to his daughter.

Lothian feels the Commonwealth’s largest and most populous member (1.3 billion people) can share much with less fortunate countries. He may have recalled Bismarck’s prophecy that ‘were the British Empire to disappear, its work in India would remain one of its most lasting monuments.’ But would others—even Indians—want the Commonwealth in India? I asked Harold Wilson at the 1969 CHOGM—held only in London then—about venues elsewhere. He said he didn’t like the sound of guns booming nearby, and, anyway, Commonwealth leaders preferred London. Someone mentioned shopping, and a newspaper cartoon showed a department store packed with people in saris, salwars, djellabas and embroidered caps. Nowadays politicians shop in London without the CHOGM excuse. Nevertheless, relocation in Banaskantha or Bankura might spare Britain accusations of continuing imperial stratagems with soft soap and sugar coating.

The real reasons for Indian interest are cloaked in studied nonchalance. The Commonwealth is the only global forum where India need fear no verbal or tactical equivalent of the Doklam face-off with China. It faces no competition in wooing the 31 small member-states whose support is invaluable in the great game of winning friends and influencing people. Syed Akbaruddin, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, drapes the tactic in the grandiose verbiage of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, the whole word is one family. South-South cooperation includes picking up diplomatic bills, helping South Pacific islanders cope with natural disasters and steering small states through the UN’s currents and quicksands. ‘The Big Influence of Small Countries in the United Nations Secretariat’, a treatise by Harvard and Dartmouth scholars, isn’t trumpeted too much. But the smallest state has an equal voice and vote in international decision-making.

The suggestion that the Commonwealth should abandon London for ‘the emerging powerhouse of India’ is historically logical for today’s Commonwealth reflects India’s determination to eat its cake and have it: a republic satisfied Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian conscience while the monarchical link flattered his English sense of hierarchy

Despite pieties about peace and progress, the ultimate touchstone of an institution’s worth lies in perceptions of individual benefit. It’s like contributing to UN peacekeeping. The cause of peace matters but the emoluments and perquisites matter more. Such disconnects can be corrected by ensuring the Commonwealth touches more lives worldwide. Next month’s CHOGM will be the first since the 2016 referendum disastrously condemned the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, immediately provoking calls to revive Commonwealth ties. But the Commonwealth can’t replace the EU. Take India. A trade deal has been languishing on the anvil these many years because as a New Statesman headline put it, ‘It’s time to recognise the truth—a trade deal with India means concessions on immigration.’ India wants Britain to accept all those skilled and unskilled Indians for whom our stagnant economy can’t find jobs. Each member-state has a similar agenda. The Commonwealth isn’t the ‘fighting organisation’ Rajiv Gandhi called it in the heady days after ousting Southern Rhodesia’s White minority rulers, but it isn’t an economics-driven bloc either.

What the Commonwealth can do is reinforce civil society by swapping experiences and expertise through professional associations. Murphy finds ‘a good example’ in the Commonwealth Journalists Association ‘under the presidency of Rita Payne, a tireless friend to journalists across the Commonwealth in their sometimes dangerous struggles to report freely’. Formerly the BBC’s Asia Editor, Rita is originally Assamese. Hashim Abdul Halim, for 29 years the West Bengal Assembly Speaker, chaired the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s daughter, Maja Daruwala, has been executive director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative headquartered in New Delhi but with offices in London and Accra for more than ten years. There are many others unchallenged by rival powers.

The Commonwealth is a club with a precise history. The link is the colonial past. There is always the danger of the yearning to expand diluting that bond. France wisely declined when Churchill in 1940 and Anthony Eden 17 years later invited it to join. Mozambique and Rwanda, which were never British colonies, may have benefited materially from membership but added nothing to the overall ambience. Japan would detract from it by living up to Lothian’s dream of associate membership. A similar status for the United States (proposed by London’s Tory Daily Telegraph) might make historical sense, but America has moved too far along a different road, especially under Donald Trump, for harmonious mingling despite the president’s alleged ‘fondness for Britain and the Royal Family’. A few more dependencies might join, but the aim should be consolidation. A good club doesn’t take in all and sundry. No one wants to leave a good club either, although some might be expelled.

The Commonwealth is a club with a precise history. The link is the colonial past. There is always the danger of the yearning to expand, diluting that bond. France wisely declined when Churchill in 1940 and Anthony Eden 17 years later invited it to join

The CHOGM theme this time, ‘Towards a Common Future’, seems particularly poignant in view of the question that already threatens to loom over the Marlborough House proceedings: Who will succeed as head of the Commonwealth when the Queen, who turns 92 next month, dies? The job is not hereditary and will not pass automatically to the next monarch. Harry’s backers think that being young (33), unorthodox, vigorous and keen, he will be a popular choice. He is expected to cement ties and inspire bright young sparks about an organisation that many see as a pale shade of a phantom empire.

This is where Meghan might help. There’s been nobody like her before in royal circles. Genealogists might count England’s 14th century King Edward III as her remote ancestor, but she calls herself “a strong, confident, mixed-race woman” whose mother is descended from African slaves in Georgia. If the Queen objects to Meghan queening it over the Commonwealth, it has nothing to do with race. Her Majesty’s reputation of being free of prejudice was reinforced when it transpired that alone among global politicians, Nelson Mandela called her “Elizabeth”. The joke in the 1980s was that if Margaret Thatcher did flounce out of the group screaming “What is Commonwealth without Britain?” the Queen might have been cussed enough to insist on staying on as head of the organisation. After all, Wally Simpson, the American destroyer who took the commander of the Royal Navy as her third mate, urged King Edward VIII to hang on as Emperor of India even if he had to quit as King of England.

Since the Queen keeps her own counsel, her views can only be guessed at. But Murphy recounts Julia Gillard’s disclosure of how the Queen’s private secretary flew to Adelaide for a 30-minute chat when she was Australian prime minister to guide the subtle wording of a statement that stressed the importance of the institution of head of the Commonwealth, paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s service, and ended saying, “I am sure the Queen’s successor as monarch will one day serve as Head of the Commonwealth with the same distinction as Her Majesty has done.” Charles represented her at the Colombo summit and joined her onstage in Malta. The Queen also announced for the record that she could not “have been better supported and represented in the Commonwealth than by The Prince of Wales who continues to give so much to it with great distinction”. Her Majesty leaves nothing to chance.

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