What is the point of the Commonwealth? Sadly, that is not a question that gets posed very often, even among its 2.3 billion citizens. The organisation has a second-best air; the start of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow reminds us that this is the second-largest global sports gathering, after the Olympics. The Commonwealth itself is the second-largest international grouping, after the UN. Its peoples are also second-class when it comes to the former imperial parent, whose trading and political links are firmly, if unenthusiastically, with the EU. It is hard to believe that, until 1962, every Commonwealth citizen had an unfettered right of abode in Britain. Today it is far easier for a German to settle here than a Trinidadian.
Still, the Commonwealth makes no great claims for itself, and, in its unpretentious way, is a force for good. Though its record has been patchy (think Zimbabwe), it tries to stand up for human rights. Its opposition to apartheid-era South Africa helped bring an end to that regime – not least when white South Africans found the “Old Commonwealth” didn’t wish to play rugby or cricket with them. It has accepted countries with no historical, or, to be less euphemistic, colonial, connection with Britain, such as Rwanda. Apart from cultural and educational work, the Commonwealth is a forum in which leaders from places as diverse as St Lucia, Canada, Tonga, Malta and Nigeria can meet and talk, preferably with the Queen as host.
Which brings us to its future, and whether, one day, without the prestige and charisma of the Queen, it can survive. On balance, it should. The main objection to the Commonwealth from the British point of view, as one nation among 53, is the homophobic laws in a startling number of member nations. Maybe that’s something that we could all talk about at the Games.
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