Return of the Empire

From the 19th century, Britain, with the supremacy of its navy, emerged as the most powerful empire of the modern era and in collusion with the other European colonising countries quite ruthlessly redrew the national boundaries throughout Africa and the Middle East with no respect or concern for the tribal boundaries that had evolved over millennia. But that British empire disintegrated over the latter half of the 20th century to be gradually replaced by an organisation called the British Commonwealth and eventually the Commonwealth of Nations.

I recall back in April 2018 watching New Zealand’s then foreign minister, Winston Peters, announcing from the London meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers that Britain was now keen to resurrect the glory of the British Empire by putting together a trade deal between we proud members of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth

Pub quiz night: name the 52 members, outside Britain, of the Commonwealth of Nations. Did you get to 10? If so I think you are well above average. Did you get Lesotho, Tuvalu, St Kitts & Nevis, Belize, Malawi, or Swaziland? This Commonwealth has 19 African members, 7 Asian, 13 Caribbean & American, 3 European and 11 from the South Pacific.

The total GDP of these 53 nations in 2021 is $US13 trillion which sounds impressive until you note that China on its own has $US18 trillion GDP and the USA has over $US20 trillion GDP. But if there is anything ‘common’ about them it is certainly not ‘wealth’.  The top 4 countries in the group (UK, India, Canada and Australia) account for 75% of the total group’s GDP. The top 11 (where New Zealand is #11) account for 95% of the whole group’s GDP. So 42 countries out of 53 (79%) bring in only 5% of the total group’s GDP. The Commonwealth includes the three poorest countries on the planet. In the same pub quiz, name them! (Kirobati, Nauru and Tuvulu. I bet you didn’t know any of them).

This Commonwealth alliance that today has little practical reason for being, has also bugger all chance of ever being a trading bloc especially when you consider that Commonwealth members of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia already belong to Trans Pacific bloc; India and South Africa are already in a trading bloc with China, Brazil and Russia; Cyprus and Malta are in the EU and the African nations have their own trading blocs.

We, the Commonwealth of Nations, are the largely-abandoned urchins of the British Empire who were left to fend for ourselves after Lady Britannia, in 1973, decided to go back to her Euro-chums’ social circuit after their two little WW’s were all forgiven and forgotten. Yes, we do meet up for family games every few years, and play a bit of cricket together which is all jolly good fun, but that’s as far as it goes. If we ever went to visit mother England we had to stand and wait in the foreigners’ queue in Heathrow while the Germans were fast-tracked through lovers’ lane.

But now after many spats in the Euro love nest, mainly about Angela the Hun letting riffraff in through the back door (not intended as a euphemism, but with Germans who knows?) Britain has divorced Europe and it has been a very expensive settlement. Add in the covid pandemic, Ukrainian war and the global opinion shift against carbon-based energy, and Britain will be suffering for a while and that is likely to make the rabble a bit restless and looking to bring back the guillotines. And like many an absentee parent finding themselves hung over, short of a few quid and debt collectors knocking, she remembers the forgotten family and reminds us that we are still family. So while divorce negotiations were in process back in 2018, the Queen called a meeting of all the family heads of their former global empire, perfectly timed right after the fun of the family games in Australia and immediately before her grand birthday party to which they had all been invited. She told them that she thought that we, as the much-loved family of the British Empire, might like to set up some sort of a trade thingy between us to top up Britain’s coffers and, since she was getting a bit wobbly on her pins, perhaps we should put Charles in charge of it all. Did she really mean all 53 members of the Commonwealth? That would be an enormously daunting prospect for a trade deal, particularly given the disparity in populations, locations, cultures and economies. The EU only has twenty eight members and our Trans Pacific Partnership has twelve members. Is Charles the man with the experience and charisma to pull together the biggest trading bloc on earth? Especially given that 79% of the members account for just 5% of the wealth.

Well, five years later,  Charles the Prince of Wales is now King Charles the third and in an address from Westminster Abbey he has addressed the Commonwealth members on the 2023 Commonwealth Day celebration.prince-charles-hunting-jacket

His message was: “our defining values: peace and justice; tolerance, respect and solidarity; care for our environment and for the most vulnerable among us…..Whether on climate change and biodiversity loss, youth opportunity and education, global health, or economic cooperation, the Commonwealth can play an indispensable role in the most pressing issues of our time.”

It sounds very noble, but on the label it says Common wealth; that promises mutual wealth and his statement puts economic cooperation almost as an afterthought even as global recession looms as one of the most urgent concerns of all the member states he was addressing. King Charles 3rd stands now before us, girthed, gumbooted and ready to lead the old empire in a 21st century crusade against the exploitation practices that Britain once took to all corners of the globe, under the guise of spreading civilisation.

Having taken wealth for granted all his life, the only thing that Charles the third would bring to the role would be a genuine knowledge about ecological sustainability. You have to admit he was all over this ecological crisis way back when we could still swim in our rivers and drink tap water. And he has approached the challenges in a far more practical way than all the attention-seekers floating around in little boats with banners. Since buying Highgrove, a 15-acre estate, in 1980, the Prince had personally overseen its transformation from pasture land into what is now regarded as one of the most important gardens in the UK. His rejection of chemical pesticides and promotion of species once considered weeds attracted criticism in the 1980s long before the boom in organic gardening. His estate even includes an innovative sewage treatment system, using only reed beds to cleanse waste water from the house. The reed-bed waste system is an artificial wetland that converts sewage back to clean water, while allowing the solid matter to be returned to the soil in the form of manure. He has even built a biogas plant in Dorset to supply gas from food waste to 56,000 homes.

I have no doubt that taking the Highgrove model to all countries of the empire is his genuine intent, and it is a grand mission that the planet and its human tenants desperately need. But in the end he is just King; he runs the family estates but he doesn’t run the economy. It is “the City” that controls London’s purse strings from the proceeds of the laundering of money, lots of money, from all over the globe, even from its enemies (probably especially from its enemies). It is something of a Shakespearian tragedy that King Charles believes he can resurrect the old bones of Britain’s 19th century trade Empire in a crusade against the new Titans of global commerce who today contribute 80+% of the environmental pollution. Ironically it was under the reign of the first King Charles that Britain’s empire really took off with the great Puritan migration to New England in America; and after 300 years of invading, occupying and exploiting countries around the world, King Charles the greenheart would now seek to persuade fifty three disparate nations to re-invent their trade practices under his banner of sustainability before profit.

But the abandoned members of the British Empire are no longer dependent on British trade, having had to survive economically over the past fifty years by each making their own way in the world, forming new trade alliances with other countries. The geo-dynamics have changed irreversibly and the Commonwealth no longer has very much in common. Can King Charles really reform the band and lead them on his great crusade against the commercial interests of the wealthiest and most heavily armed nations on earth? It is a lovely thought but it would have been like King Victor Emmanuel of Italy trying to regroup the former Roman Empire to force Queen Victoria to pull her head in and stop growing opium in India then selling it in China.

In the words of Daryll Kerrigan, Australia’s only philosopher, “tell him he’s dreamin’.”

  1. #1 by Colin & Ngaire Chinn on April 26, 2018 - 11:01 pm

    Well it’s not nearly as damming of Britain as I thought it might be and I almost get the impression that you have a sneaky admiration for Charlie – you certainly taught me stuff about his activities at Highgrove and in Dorset that I didn’t know.

    It’s perfectly true that us Brits are trying to “resurrect the old bones of their (our) 19th century trade empire”. What’s wrong with that? We put our hands up and say we’re sorry we abandoned you in favour of a failing project (the EU): we never realised that joining that organisation involved completely relinquishing our sovereignty to unelected officials in Brussels.

    Given that we now have fuck all left to sell anyone and that we’re a huge net importer of raw and processed products why would the commonwealth not be interested forming a trade block with us? Sure there as other trade deals the four (or eleven) biggies have already signed up to but that should not mean they can’t be part of other agreements.

    I’m sure the remaining bunch of tiny economy’s in the Commonwealth will have their own views on whether or not they are worth bothering about simply because they’re not a major player in anything.

    Sent from Samsung tablet


  2. #2 by tonypcollins on April 27, 2018 - 10:14 am

    Britain’s primary industry now is gambling in the London stock exchange. ‘Selling’ our goods to Britain will have us constantly hearing “put it on tick will you luv? we’re family. Maybe fix you up next month; got a tip from a stockbroker; we’ll be rolling in it next month.”


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