I don’t mind the Commonwealth Games. It’s the Commonwealth that’s the problem
As I watched this year's games in Barbados, a proud new republic, I was left with mixed feelings.
06 Aug 2022
If you ever spend time with us, you will know that Caribbean people are competitive as hell. Competitive in our own lighthearted, vibrant, energetic way, but competitive, nonetheless. We’re a region made up of small islands, but our sense of pride is a hundred times our size, so it’s not surprising that you’ll find Caribbean people glued to their screens when it comes to global sporting events.
World championships, the Olympics, FIFA World Cup – we love it all. And this year’s Commonwealth Games have been no different. We’ve been excited to see our national colours on display and to witness the stunning athletic prowess from competitors from all around the world. Basically, for the last week, we’ve been tuned in.
Admittedly, the atmosphere surrounding the quadrennial games feels a little different this year. This past November, my country, Barbados, made the decision to join Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Dominica to become the fourth Caribbean nation to formally remove the British Queen as head of state. Since then, Jamaica has signalled its intent to the same, and other islands are now rethinking their relationship with the UK’s monarchy.
All around the Caribbean, we’ve begun to truly come to terms with the egregious and extensive legacy of colonialism, including the ways we continue to feel its impact post-independence. Sentimentality for the “mother country” has all but dried up, and is being replaced with increasingly vocal calls for accountability for its role in the slave trade, and most importantly, reparations.
“All around the Caribbean, we’ve begun to truly come to terms with the egregious and extensive legacy of colonialism, including the ways we continue to feel its impact post-independence”
Prince William and Kate Middleton’s Caribbean tour in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee only served as stark reminder of the way Britain built its empire on the backs of slave labour and large-scale exploitation. The protests that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were met with upon arrival in the Caribbean should have surprised no one, least of all the Royal Family – if they had been paying attention to the Commonwealth of Nations, over which the Queen presides.
Founded in the wake of a crumbling British empire, the Commonwealth of Nations (colloquially known as the Commonwealth) is a voluntary association of 54 member states, almost all of which are former colonies. Its objectives are similar to other typical intergovernmental organisations, including “economic development, democracy-building, free trade promotion, poverty reduction, healthcare programs, and cultural exchange”. In a 1953 Christmas address, Her Majesty the Queen asserted, “thus formed, the Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”
Which, of course, sounds great in theory. But critics have long questioned the usefulness of the Commonwealth. Phillip Murphy, director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, has described the Commonwealth as an “irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia”, and further questioned whether it will ever “escape from the shadow of the British Empire to become an organisation based on shared values, rather than a shared history.”
Given the British Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation, Boris Johnson’s attempt to influence the Commonwealth Secretary General position, and the Royal Family’s refusal to apologise for the vile human rights abuses of the slave trade, this feels like a particularly apt description.
The Commonwealth as a political entity of “imperial amnesia” doesn’t serve any purpose other than to continue a legacy of an empire that many of its nations are desperately trying to move on from. As a political bloc, it lacks the mechanisms and organisational infrastructure to genuinely influence member behaviour. In fact, it has been accused of overlooking human rights abuses in some of its member countries.
Furthermore, according to a recent trade report, the UK recorded a trade surplus of £1.7bn in 2019 within the Commonwealth, and has recorded a surplus every year since 2010. Additionally, the Commonwealth accounted for 9.1% of the UK’s total trade in 2019, which is about the same as the UK’s total trade with Germany. Five Commonwealth countries – Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa – accounted for nearly three quarters of this Commonwealth trade. As such, trade relations within the Commonwealth are, unsurprisingly, heavily skewed to favour the former colonial master, with the majority of member states not benefitting at all.
“Trade relations within the Commonwealth are, unsurprisingly, heavily skewed to favour the former colonial master, with the majority of member states not benefitting at all”
That isn’t to say there’s no value in multilateralism. The Commonwealth Games is a beautiful example of the way organisations like the Commonwealth foster community building. After all, there is always a distinction between what happens at a governmental level versus a grassroots one.
That’s why, despite this political landscape, I continue to view the Commonwealth Games as a positive and unifying space, even while I watched the 2022 Games from Barbados, a new republic. Considering the way athletes rave about their experience in the athlete’s village, it appears that the camaraderie and community atmosphere alone make the games worthwhile.
And when I think about the games, or any international sporting event really, my favourite moments are always those small ones – like how athletes from different nations embrace after a particularly gruelling race, or listening to the unique ways that countries have composed their respective national anthems. I love seeing the kaleidoscope of national colours, and hearing the symphonies of accents. It is in these seemingly ordinary moments that we begin building bridges across borders.
“My favourite moments are always those small ones – like how athletes from different nations embrace after a particularly gruelling race, or listening to the unique ways that countries have composed their respective national anthems”
In 2012, the Commonwealth Charter was adopted, boldly expressing “the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all the people of the Commonwealth.” Decades since its inception, one has to question whether the Commonwealth, as an organising body, has meaningfully made strides towards this ideal. There’s also the question of whether the Commonwealth Charter’s ideal of peace and prosperity to all its members is even possible, when so little has been done to dismantle the colonial foundations upon which the organisation has been built. If our goal is really a global community, then perhaps it is time to focus on the power of people, rather than institutions.
But in the meantime, I’ll be happily cheering on my Bajan and Caribbean athletes, from behind my TV screen, just like I’ve always done.
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