Canvas Interview: Commonwealth Past and Future
You spent thirty years working in and around Commonwealth issues. How did you come by that particular area, and how did your work progress over time?
Like many students in the early 1970s I became especially interested in issues to do with development and poverty. We talked then of a ‘Third World’, of developing countries, even of the particular problems of ‘new states’, given that the moment of passage from colonialism was still very recent for many countries. I read French well enough and had some Spanish, but I didn’t think my languages were good enough for me to do proper research on a non-English-speaking part of the world. So I was limited practically to the ex-British Empire, as it were, which by the time I was taking decisions was in effect the Commonwealth. I then developed a notion of a ‘Commonwealth Third World’ as a framework within which one could compare parts of Africa with parts of Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and thereafter I was off and away along this particular road. It’s been a lot of fun.
You focused on the Caribbean specifically. How have Caribbean issues developed in the past thirty years?
I initially planned to write a PhD thesis on West African politics and development. But at the first meeting of my incoming cohort of students at Manchester I sat by chance next to a West Indian student who became a friend and who gradually persuaded me to divert my attention to his part of the world. I have never regretted the switch. By the way, he is now Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, one of the small independent states of the eastern Caribbean!
Caribbean issues have gone through quite a shift during the period that I have been researching them – from an early period of tentative, cautious emergence into the world of sovereign statehood, to a turbulent and radical phase in the 1970s marked by the turn to democratic socialism in Jamaica and the revolution in Grenada, to a tougher engagement with neo-liberalism, structural adjustment and the IMF in the 1980s. Currently, the region faces a quiet crisis – characterised by high levels of debt, failing economic performance, growing crime and a lack of far-sighted leadership. It no longer attracts much attention from the rest of the world, which is a pity and a problem for it.
The recent CHOGM conference in Sri Lanka was not a success. What were the issues?
The core issue was the alleged human rights abuses committed by the current regime holding power in Sri Lanka during the course of the long (26 year) civil war that has been fought in that country. Many Commonwealth political leaders decided that they did not want to associate themselves with the controversy and so they stayed away from the summit. It was attended by one of the lowest percentages of member-state leaders ever seen, with many members sending their foreign minister and some only officials. The Caribbean state of Grenada didn’t send anybody at all. Although the CHOGM did generate some statements and took up stances on some global issues, it failed to gain any real momentum and has accordingly been dubbed ‘a lost summit’ by an experienced observer of the Commonwealth. Journalists inevitably focused on the Sri Lankan question and the poor attendance record of the Heads as a group. All in all, it proved to be a mistake to have held the meeting in Sri Lanka at the present time and some smarter political footwork was needed to divert the Commonwealth away from this particular, and eminently avoidable, car crash.
Gambia recently left the Commonwealth, citing that it was a ‘neo-colonial’ organisation. Meanwhile, South Sudan is currently applying to join. What do you think the Commonwealth means to different nations?
As your example neatly illustrates, the Commonwealth is seen in completely different ways by different countries. This is exactly its problem. Its image is blurred. Of course, it is a complex organisation, being composed of large and small states, former colonisers and former colonies, rich and poor countries, different religions and cultures, and so on. But this does not mean that it cannot develop, or re-develop, a sharper brand, as it were. It has had that before, notably perhaps in the period of the high politics of opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa when Shridath Ramphal (from the Caribbean) was Secretary-General. All complex organisations need decisive leadership and the reality is that the Commonwealth has lacked this for a significant period. At the next CHOGM, to be held in Malta in 2015, the organisation will be choosing its next Secretary-General. This will be a vital appointment. It is imperative, if the Commonwealth is to revive and survive, that a truly dynamic person is found to take on the job.
Does the Commonwealth face a crisis of legitimacy? Does it bring anything consequential to the table beyond ‘British values’?
I don’t think it is right any more to see the Commonwealth as being characterised by British values, whatever these are. It has more than 50 member-states drawn from all parts of the world, all of them touched by Britain historically but none of them in any serious sense British in their contemporary culture. To an extent, the organisation does have a crisis of legitimacy in that it has said that it is a gathering of democratic states committed to the maintenance of human rights. But it then meets in Sri Lanka and immediately throws this claim into question. Above all, though, I would say that the Commonwealth faces a crisis of purpose. What is it for? What can it uniquely do that other international organisations cannot? I think that a positive answer can be given to this question, based around the Commonwealth’s capacity to straddle what we can still to some extent usefully call ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ perspectives on global issues. It’s also striking that the Commonwealth contains just about all of the really small states in the world – countries of around one million people with special vulnerabilities as a consequence. In other words, a purpose can be set out. But it needs leadership to do it.
What does the future hold for the Commonwealth?
The answer, manifestly, is uncertainty, for all of the reasons previously given. However, we shall be able to give a sharper answer to this question in a year’s time after the next CHOGM in Malta has taken place and a new Secretary-General is in place. The Commonwealth cannot afford two ‘lost summits’ in a row. The Maltese Prime Minister is aware of this and is undertaking a lot of extra planning for the next summit. Commonwealth supporters need to wish him well and assist if they can.
Tony Payne, thank you.