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Should Britain try and take the lead in the Commonwealth?

Written by Sanjaya Baru, Ross Robertson and Professor Femi Otubanjo |

In recent years, Britain’s position in the modern Commonwealth has had a high degree visibility, with the late Queen as ceremonial head, the British credentials of current Secretary General Patricia Scotland (notwithstanding her stress on her Caribbean heritage), and Britain’s position as chair in office from 2018-2022. Since the BREXIT referendum and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the Commonwealth has received far greater emphasis in Conservative governments’ and politicians’ public rhetoric. The idea of shifting immigration towards ‘old’ Commonwealth countries featured in right-wing Conservative discourse during the referendum campaign. During its time as chair in office, Britain directed £500m in bilateral assistance to Commonwealth countries whilst reducing British funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth’s bureaucratic organisation; and former Prime Minister’s Boris Johnson led a campaign in support of Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith’s bid to be SG, against Baroness Scotland.  However, there is an extraordinary gap in the knowledge of the British public about empire and the decolonizing process, let alone the modern Commonwealth. Authors such as Kris Srinivasan implied in the past that the viability and vitality of the Commonwealth depends on British leadership; without this, in their view, the Commonwealth will continue to dwindle and fail. However, there are enduring sensitivities within the Commonwealth if the British, as the former imperial power, appear to be taking too strong a stance. Others have argued that the enduring links between the British monarch and the modern association perpetuate a perception of the Commonwealth as ‘empire 2.0’, particularly in the minds of young people. Yet, as ceremonial head, King Charles III has already firmly signaled that he wants to support the Commonwealth as a progressive association, supporting developmental states and assisting small, especially small island states. Can the circle be squared? If so, how?

To answer some of the questions, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies offers three opinions from eminent geo political thinkers on this issue from diverse parts of the Commonwealth.

Do We Need The Commonwealth?
Sanjaya Baru

In the late 1980s I had the opportunity of delivering a few lectures on India at the School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Most of my students were British, with a few South Asians who had also gone to school in Britain. I was astounded to discover that none of them had learnt much through their school years about the British Empire. I was required to lecture to them on more recent Indian economic development but I ended up devoting a few lectures to the impact that the empire had on the Indian economy before bringing them up to speed on more contemporary developments.

This ignorance of colonial history may be at the root of general British disinterest in the idea of the Commonwealth and in its history and geography. On the other hand, the memory and legacy of the Empire weighs heavily on the minds and lives of those of us who live and have been educated in the former colonies. 

Despite this difference in an understanding and appreciation of the past between Britain and its colonies, the Commonwealth has endured largely on account of the developmental and educational benefits it has sought to offer. However, as Britain recedes as an economy and the countries of the Global South rise it is less clear what benefits a 'Britain-led' Commonwealth can offer its membership.

This question acquires even greater relevance today when the United Kingdom is no longer as 'united' and Great Britain is no longer as 'great'. The Commonwealth appears as an even greater anachronism at a time when even the idea of Monarchy is increasingly being questioned within Britain, and republicanism is on the ascendance in Australia and across the Caribbean.[1]

What the developed countries within the Commonwealth have been able to offer the developing ones remains largely confined to access to education and employment opportunities. Canada and Australia have become magnets attracting talent and skill from the Global South. Britain has also been open to such traffic but the growing assertion of anti-immigration sentiment casts a long shadow.

Global North, Global South and Global Commons

In a rapidly changing world divided between the East and the West and the Global North and the Global South, the Commonwealth may still retain its relevance as a 'bridge' but it is less and less obvious as to what kind of a bridge it seeks to be in the 21st Century. At any rate, this 'bridging' role can only be played if Britain and the other developed economies are not merely investing in the Commonwealth, offering access to knowledge, technology and employment, but are able to work with the developing countries of the Commonwealth on such issues as global trade, climate change and migration.

The fact is that on many issues pertaining to the 'Global Commons' the interests of the Global North and the Global South are increasingly at variance. Can the Commonwealth arrive at a shared vision on such issues of vital importance to all member nations? Given North-South divisions on each of these issues, the Commonwealth could have played a far more pro-active role in bridging differences on these global challenges. It has not.

Does the Commonwealth have the capacity to bridge these divisions and this diversity? To my mind, this is a key question that will determine the relevance of the Commonwealth given the geo-economic and geopolitical shifts underway. At a time when the United Nations itself is becoming anachronistic with its out-dated governance structure, can the Commonwealth seek relevance without altering its own governance structure? This brings me to the question of how today's India is likely to view the Commonwealth.

India and Commonwealth

In 2022 India overtook the United Kingdom to become the fourth largest economy in the world. This has already influenced perceptions in New Delhi and London of each other. India has recently claimed that, in the context of its role within the Group of Twenty (G-20), it seeks to remain a "voice of the Global South". What would this dualism mean for India's role within the Commonwealth? Will the fact that it is a bigger economy than the UK shape its worldview within the Commonwealth or the claim that it remains a 'voice of the Global South'? India needs to spell out its vision for itself - is it still a low income developing country or a Rising Power?

If there is a meeting ground between India and the Commonwealth's developed countries - UK, Canada and Australia - it could, and perhaps would, be their shared anxiety about shifts in global balance of power. As the United States and China engage in a competition for global leadership, with Europe anxious about its place in the emerging global order, Britain uncertain about its post-Brexit future, and Russia re-asserting itself, there could be a geopolitical basis for a coming together of at least some of the major Commonwealth countries that could act as a ballast for the organisation.

Can the Commonwealth re-invent itself as a geopolitical and geo-economic Anglosphere? In a such an association of mutual interest the developed member countries like UK, Canada and Australia will have to share power with emerging markets and rising powers like India, South Africa, Nigeria and Malaysia.

This is not the first time that the Commonwealth has had to reflect on its relevance, rethink its role and plan for the future. However, this is the first time it would be doing so at a time when there are fundamental shifts taking place both within the global balance of power system - between East and West, North and South - and within the Commonwealth's own membership, as Britain recedes and India rises.

Sanjaya Baru has been editor of major Indian newspapers. He was an advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was Director for Geo-economics & Strategy, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, and a member of India's national security advisory board.

Should Britain try and take a lead in the Commonwealth? If so, how?
Ross Robertson
New Zealand

Leadership is difficult to define, yet look at British leaders Queen Elizabeth I, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II and you know it when you see it. 

Historically Britain has spread its influence throughout the world particularly during the last few centuries.   Many countries throughout the world were colonised by Britain and not all aspects of this vast colonisation were positive.   However, the fact remains that the British colonisers were probably the most influential that the world has encountered in its long history. It is claimed that at one stage one quarter of the world came under British rule, thus prompting the well know phrase, ‘the empire on which the sun never sets.’  At its zenith, it was the largest empire the world had ever seen.

Within the framework of Britain’s governance there’s no doubt mistakes have been made; however, the saying ‘British fair play’ has been earned, not least, by its dealings with its colonial cousins. Fair play is a virtue and not to be ignored.

So what are some of the most positive aspects drawn from an analysis of the British impact on the world’s nations over the ensuing years?

  1. The English language has proved to be the main communication in transport systems.  For instance, air trafficking and sea voyaging are obvious examples of a consensus reached by countries of the world for proficiency and protection of the wellbeing of travellers.  
  2. The value of a common language in binding and uniting countries together should not be underestimated.
  3. The British system of Parliament has been implemented in many Commonwealth countries and has proved to be possibly the fairest and most democratic method of government conceived.
  4. The British educational system has been copied in many nations.  Students from all countries, not only ex Commonwealth, are to be found in large numbers at universities in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain itself.   Once again, the drawcard being an education from an English-speaking academy.

The English language is a very strong factor, which not only binds people of diverse ethnicities and cultures but also creates a certain togetherness between its residents. Former Colonial Countries have recognised the advantages of keeping ties and working with each other to their mutual advantage.

No return to the 1950s – 60s

The aftermath of the Second World War saw much migration from colonial countries such as West Indies, India, and Pakistan among others.  These ‘new Britons’ were given free access in a move to help the industrial reconstruction of the country.  This type of migration is no longer desirable.  Britain should, with its more prosperous Commonwealth countries, lead and promote a higher quality of living within the borders of developing nations. Yes, there can be controlled immigration into Britain and its wealthier partners, but the drive should be on helping the population of developing countries gain a good standard of living in their own communities in order to help progressively rebuild them.  

Leadership and the Royal Family

Nations around the world are facing an unprecedented time of change, a crisis of identity and confusion. More than ever befor,  there is exacting scrutiny on the moral character of those who would lead us. The Royal Family headed by King Charles and supported particularly by Prince William, and Princess Catherine (Prince and Princess of Wales) have the ability to motivate and inspire others in leading a drive to bind countries of the Commonwealth. 

They hold no political predispositions and as seen at the recent funeral of Queen Elizabeth II there is still massive worldwide support for the royal family. Therefore, there is no need for Britain to take too strong a stance but to take a democratic and benevolent leadership role in the advancement of its members. King Charles and the royal family can and should spearhead this advancement.

Britain’s leadership role should be as a guiding and supporting mentor in the implementation of initiatives to further the progression of Commonwealth countries. Proverbial wisdom is remarkably astute:  Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

How should Britain take a lead?

By its influences of the past in colonisation, trade, education, cultural exchanges alongside other effects, Britain has earned the right to take the lead in Commonwealth affairs. The promotion of an economic union of the Commonwealth is today a possibility and establishing such a block is an interesting idea. It would be a positive for the Commonwealth although challenges of mistrust and execution remain and leadership is the key.

This, leadership role however, should be achieved in a considerate and democratic manner for together we serve and together we prosper.

Bringing developing countries up to a modern acceptable standard by identifying exactly what the needs are, and then employing independent expertise is important in order to apply strategies needed for advancement. 

In employing such expertise from outside of any particular state, it is important that they first liaise with identified officials within the country of their needs.  This is not an easy task particularly when dealing with various cultures who have their own take on what is right and fair.

For example, the author has experienced situations in other communities where family interests are paramount and take precedence over what in Western culture could be considered ‘fair and equitable play’.

Scenarios such as this are not easy to identify and the requirement of expertise to ensure the performance of correct procedures is critical for success. 

Britain should aim for the self-sustaining of any of the nations in question. Although this may mean initial investment, the long-term goal should be a united Commonwealth with strict guidelines for its achievement.


In the past citizens from all countries of the Commonwealth have tended to gravitate to Britain whether it be for vacation, overseas experience or to migrate and become resident.   This paper suggests that this procedure is reversed, and that British knowhow and expertise is exported to these countries. This with the aim of progressing, advancing and developing targeted areas of their economies.

It should be emphasised that this venture should not be regarded as a ‘hand-out’ but a win for both parties.

It is critical that British representatives in these ventures are well versed in the cultural values of the countries, with which they deal.

That Britain is not perceived in a controlling or directing capacity but in an advisory and supporting role.

King Charles and the British Royal family are well placed to lead such an innovative and beneficial project, which can create a situation where everyone wins. In that respect, we need men and women who walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The British Royal family fit the bill.

Ross Robertson was a member of New Zealand Parliament (Labour) from 1987 to 2014 and held important roles during the 26 years of his parliamentary position. He also served as president of Parliamentarians for Global Action.

Should Britain try and take a lead in the Commonwealth? 
Professor Femi Otubanjo

It is doubtful if there is anyone who does not regard Britain as the leader of the Commonwealth. There is general acceptance that Britain is the pivot around which the Commonwealth revolves; it is the undeclared leader of the organization, whose 56 Members and 2.5 billion have common historical roots in British colonial rule. Queen Elizabeth was the Head of the Commonwealth, from 1952 till her death on September 8, 2022 and her successor, King Charles III, has assumed the role, without any formalities. Britain's leadership of the Commonwealth is neither a matter of choice or selection but of the dictates of history. No other country in the organisation can lay claim to that manifest destiny and none is, obviously, challenging it.

The interpretation of this question, therefore, cannot be whether Britain should take a lead in the affairs of the Commonwealth because she already plays that role; it can only be about the kind of leadership role Britain should play in the organization. Implicit in this interpretation is the assumption that Britain is not, currently, providing the kind of leadership needed to make the Commonwealth more cohesive, more effective in the international system and, obviously, more useful in the attainment of Britain’s own foreign policy objectives. Will the purpose of a change in Britain leadership engagement be to make the organization a more potent actor in the international system, a more productive partner in the existential concerns of member states and a more productive instrument of Britain’s foreign policy?

The major instruments available to Britain to effect a more robust leadership in the Commonwealth are the political, the military and the economic. The political involves the monumental efforts of creating a common voice on global issues from the aspirations and orientations of 56 states. Although there are no major ideological differences among the member states, the multitude of foreign policy traditions, orientations and aspirations are, unlikely, to, always, yield to a uniform vision and a common preference on international issues. While it is not impossible to forge common responses, from time to time, the prospects of a predictable political platform are very dim.

The military instrument seems, even, more distant and less viable, as a means of engineering a more robust leadership. The geography of the Commonwealth does not yield to any common security concerns not the means of managing them. It is possible for Britain to increase its military presence in Commonwealth countries, through defense pacts, establishment of military bases and military assistance programs. These would involve massive increases in defence expenditure, at a time when defence spending has been in the frontline of budget cuts.[2] It is, also to be remembered that the long-running antagonism between two of the largest members of the organization - India and Pakistan (who happen to be nuclear powers) – is likely to be a road-block for effective military diplomacy. Besides, a more invasive use of the military instrument is, more likely, to arouse the sceptre of neo-colonialism and nationalist resistance, more than any other (see the story of the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact).[3] The most viable route available to Britain, to effect a new leadership direction, in the Commonwealth, lies in the economic instrument - trade developmental aid, loans, investments, grants etc.

A more obtrusive leadership will, of necessity, raise suspicions of neo-colonialism but that may not be a great concern for the big and developed members countries like India, Pakistan, Canada, Australia and Malaysia and South Africa who are self-assured enough not to be threatened by any neo-colonial intention and manoeuvres. The medium to smaller member nations, such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Lesotho are, unlikely, to be deterred by the subtle differences between influence, investment and neo-colonialism in welcoming a fairly more aggressive British participation in their economies and developmental programmes.

Nigeria is, unlikely, to be perturbed by any significant change in the momentum or substance of Britain's leadership. In line with her foreign policy tradition of multilateralism, she has always taken the commonwealth as one of her key platforms for engaging the world. She has never wavered in her commitment to the organisation and has not been only a central actor in the Commonwealth but also one of its financial corner stones.

The importance Nigeria attaches to the Commonwealth was symbolized in her interest in the position of the Secretary General of the Organization in the 1970s and the extent she went to ensure that Chief Emeka Anyaoku prevailed, in the competition for the office at the Heads of Government meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on October, 1989.[4] Nigeria’s commitment to the Commonwealth was, however, undermined by the general uproar that followed the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa and four others and the suspension of Nigeria from the organization, at the 1995 Heads of Government meeting, held in Auckland, New Zealand.[5]

The suspension was very well received by the mass public in Nigeria, who saw it as a welcome rebuke for an unpopular and unwanted military regime. Ironically, the four years of Nigeria’s suspension to a lessening of the importance led of the Commonwealth as a diplomatic platform but, more importantly, the loss of mass recognition of its relevance. Today, it no longer commands the same pre-suspension recognition or mass attention and is widely seen as more of another junketing opportunity for the political and diplomatic elite.

This loss of interest is due, largely, to the decline in its developmental role, in the face of the unrelenting economic travails of many of its poorer members, who are in the majority, and the aggressive economic diplomacy of other major actors in the international system, particularly, China and the EU.[6]

The developing (poorer) countries are not looking for political (photo opportunity) platforms but meaningful interventions in their fight against debts and poverty. The leadership they want is developmental leadership.

The onus is on Britain to make a play for a greater leadership role in the Commonwealth. If that role is, glaringly, beneficial, to its members, it would attract very little, if any, resistance. As a Yoruba (Nigerian) proverb teaches, if you want to walk on soft grounds, you must spread water ahead.

It is desirable that the Commonwealth is renewed, as a primary and popular platform of international interactions, with a more decisive and recognisable leadership. Such a leadership is desirable in an international system, in which the Hobbesian syndrome remains intractable. International Organisations are, generally, handicapped by a lack of clear leadership and a general paranoia about accepting one. Even those regional organisations that radiate some modicum of serenity and unity are, forever, plagued by fissiparous forces and owe their stability to relentless and strenuous diplomatic bargaining.

Femi Otubanjo is, currently, a Research Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos. In addition to nearly four decades of teaching in several universities, in Nigeria, he has also served as a Special Adviser to the Federal Government of Nigeria and as a Columnist/Member of the Editorial Boards, at two of Nigeria’s leading newspapers - The Tribune and The Guardian


[1] 15 Commonwealth member states are also Commonwealth 'realms' which have kept the British monarch as their constitutional head of state. The majority Commonwealth countries are republics. 

[2] Britain cut £500 millions from its aid programme to Commonwealth countries, in 2021

[3] Nationalist sentiments greeted the proposal for an Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact, ratified in November, 1960, but which was abrogated on January 22, 1962, after massive protests, led by students of the University of Ibadan.

[4] He was re-elected to a second term, at the 1993 Heads of Government meeting in Limassol, Cyprus.

[5] One of the most tempestuous CHOGMs.

[6] China is pursuing an aggressive programme of developmental assistance in Africa, including many Commonwealth countries