Guyana and the Commonwealth

“Commonwealth Day” came on March 12 with hardly a flutter in Guyana, save for a modest ceremony at the Public Buildings, where an almond tree planted on Commonwealth Day 2013 was fenced. The rather strained analogies made by the few speakers, on the robust growth of the tree to the Commonwealth relations, only served to highlight questions about the relevance of the organisation in this new millennium.
Commonwealth Day, of course, succeeded “Empire Day” in 1958, just after Ghana had received independence the year before, and a full decade after India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It was an acknowledgement that “the times were a changin’” as far as the Empire on which “the sun never set” was concerned. It was one other arrangement by Britain to retain the advantages of having colonies without bearing any burdens.
In the Caribbean, they had cobbled together the willing colonies into a “West Indian Federation,” which crumbled under its contradictions four years later. When Empire Day had been officially launched by Lord Meath in 1905, he boasted it was a “symbol of that unity of feeling…to those ideals of freedom, justice, and tolerance for which the British Empire [stood] throughout the world.” The hypocrisy of the statement was palpable, since Indians were still being shipped out to the colonies as “indentured servants” in echo of the slave trade on which Empire had been built. In South Africa, the seeds of apartheid were being planted when those same Indentured Indians were refused full citizenship rights at the end of their service.
The theme for Commonwealth Day 2018 is “Towards a common future,” and this year, for the first time in two decades, Britain will assume the chair of the 53-member organization, after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHoGM) next month in London. This year, the Queen of England sent a rather ironic message to the Commonwealth Day commemoration at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France: “There is a very special value in the insights we gain through the Commonwealth connection; shared inheritance helps us overcome differences, so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division”.
The irony arises out of Britain’s “Brexit”, occasioned more than anything else by the rejection of “differences” implicit by their majority “leave vote”. The British voters made it clear they envisaged a Britain that was much less heterogenous than at present, and that immigrants from countries that were not connected to Britain through blood ties were not welcome. In this nativist iteration, the target is Eastern Europeans in addition to members from “coloured” Commonwealth countries that had been restricted since the late 1960s.
The sad truth is: Britain is looking at the Commonwealth as it had done after WWII at the “Empire” — as a salvation for its comparatively declining economic fortunes vis-a-vis Europe and a New Global Order being created with the rise of China and India as driving forces in global trade. Once again, it wants to reap benefits without responsibilities. We in Guyana cannot forget the cavalier treatment of the “Commonwealth Sugar Agreement” it negotiated with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries – including Guyana – after WWII, to ensure its citizens their “cuppa”. It transmuted that Agreement into the Lome Protocol when it entered the EU in 1973, and promised it would last “in perpetuity”. Yet it played a lead role in pushing for the end of the arrangement in 2009, with a subsequent 36% cut in sugar prices.
At CHoGM, Guyana and the rest of Caricom must insist that if the Commonwealth is to survive, it must begin to address the concerns of all members, and move from simply uttering platitudes. In a world that rotates on free trade — championed by Britain at the end of the slave trade — the Commonwealth, for instance, can take a lead to return the WTO to its intended role: to create a more level playing field, by insisting that the Doha round be resumed.