Since the Brexit vote, the British government has been pushing for what it perceives to be a quick-fix solution to the looming black hole in the nation’s finances: increased trade with the Commonwealth—a network of 53 countries largely made up of former British colonies.
Last week at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the government was at it again. Theresa May argued that the Commonwealth could be a “powerful example” of the “importance of protecting free trade” and implied that Commonwealth countries would be at the center of “global” Britain’s foreign policy.
But these are empty promises: trade with the Commonwealth nations is neither a huge opportunity nor a sign that Britain is embracing a truly “global” foreign policy agenda.
Brexit supporters used the idea of a “global Britain” as a symbol for what Britain could achieve once freed from the restrictions of the European Union. And the Commonwealth has become one of the most poignant symbols of this new global Britain. As Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently put it: “When we leave the E.U., we will regain the power to sign free trade agreements with our Commonwealth friends.”
With these images, Johnson and other Brexit supporters are perpetuating the misleading idea of the Commonwealth as a bountiful yet untapped trading resource—one that’s eager to offer the U.K. more favorable trade terms than are currently available. This view is built on Britain’s popular yet distorted perception that it stands at the center of the Commonwealth and that all its members will be lining up to trade with it post-Brexit. In reality, the Commonwealth was created with a vision that all countries be “equal,” and the Queen is only head of state to around a third of them.
Perceptions of a Britain-centric Commonwealth are partially rooted in the institution’s colonial origins. As the British Empire began to disintegrate in the nineteenth century, Britain sought to create a trading network with countries previously under British rule in order to make goods cheaper for consumers. Today, most of the public knows little about the Commonwealth or what it’s supposed to do. For many, their only contact with the institution are the Commonwealth Games, which just took place in mid-April.
But these romanticized and nostalgic notions of empire give many British people an overblown sense of the small island nation’s importance in the twenty-first century. The U.K. is a nation in which 59 percent of the population believes the British Empire is something to be proud of. This figure reflects a country that has long refused to recognize, let alone confront, its imperial legacy. Britain is in denial of how it its empire was built upon exploitation of the colonized and underpinned by racist assumptions. Such histories should spark discussion, not pride.
The assertion that the Commonwealth will be a springboard for a “global Britain” is not only rooted in a troubled colonial legacy; it is also widely misleading. In 2015, around 44 percent of U.K. goods and services went to the E.U. while the entirety of the Commonwealth received just 9 percent. Many members of the Commonwealth already have tariff-free trade with Britain, offering them little incentive to provide Britain privileged market access. Moreover, Britain’s exit from the E.U. in March 2019 could temporarily reduce the country’s ability to trade with Commonwealth countries as it currently does so via its E.U. membership.
Worse still, the government’s claims disregard the wishes of the other Commonwealth nations. In the run-up to the referendum, heads of Commonwealth nations pushed for the U.K. to stay in the European Union. India—a major target for post-Brexit trade—has long stated that any trade deals with the U.K. would be contingent on a loosening of restrictions on Indian immigration. This kind of compromise looks extremely unlikely given May’s recent assertion that she does not want freedom of movement to accompany freedom of trade with the Commonwealth.
The idea of a “global Britain” opening its arms to the Commonwealth sits uneasily with a government that just last week was forced to apologize for its treatment of Caribbean migrants legally residing in the U.K. It shows a government determined to force a one-sided foreign policy agenda, seeking only what it perceives to be politically useful without showing willingness to compromise.
Unfortunately for “global Britain,” the Commonwealth will not be able to fix the gaping Brexit-shaped chasm in its economy or its national identity. Instead, Britain must begin to accept its diminished influence on the global stage and start crafting a more practical post-Brexit foreign policy.