Jim Davidson reviews 'The Empire’s New Clothes: The myth of the Commonwealth' by Philip Murphy

Jim Davidson reviews 'The Empire’s New Clothes: The myth of the Commonwealth' by Philip Murphy

The Empire’s New Clothes: The myth of the Commonwealth

by Philip Murphy

Hurst & Company, $55.99 hb, 306 pp, 9781849049467

When I went to live in London in 1970, the dissolution of the British Empire had yet to reach its final stages. (While Fiji became independent that year, Hong Kong would not be transferred to China till 1997). The Commonwealth seemed like a glorious roseate hue, a spectacular sunset lingering after the sun had gone down: a device enabling the British to kid themselves that their world hadn’t really changed. But it had, deeply. To parody Voltaire on the Holy Roman Empire: the British Commonwealth had become neither British, nor common, nor wealthy.

As Philip Murphy shows in The Empire’s New Clothes, the institution had recently undergone real change. Whereas in the 1950s Commonwealth prime ministers’ biennial conferences were still centred on the ‘old Dominions’ – the official photograph always showing Sir Robert Menzies in his element, standing near the Queen – now the access of new members began to transform the institution. For too long the British had been inclined to think of emergent African states as ‘self-governing’ rather than independent. But soon the African tail began, improbably, to wag the British bulldog.

The groundwork was laid in the mid-1960s, with the establishment of a Commonwealth secretariat in London. A number of worldwide cooperative agencies were already in existence, dating from the days of the Empire; gradually these have multiplied to the point where today there are over thirty. These range from legal and parliamentary associations to a Commonwealth Veterinary Association, a Youth Orchestra, and the Commonwealth Business Council. Initially, there was a hope of working together, to give emergent states a bright post-independence future. But resources were always meagre. Simultaneously, the idea of the Commonwealth itself has received greater articulation and elaboration, particularly in the area of human rights. Statements have become more ambitious and prolix, Philip Murphy notes, as the organisation has become weaker and weaker. But there was always an element of fudge about the Commonwealth. There had to be: in 1965, the year the secretariat was established, India went to war with Pakistan (for the first time).

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Given its new African core, the Commonwealth was singularly effective in helping to bring down the racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. Despite Margaret Thatcher’s steadfast opposition to applying sanctions against the apartheid government, Commonwealth secretary-general Shridath (‘Sonny’) Ramphal was active in marshalling opinion against continuing white-minority rule. Malcolm Fraser’s role in this is well known; we are told how Bob Hawke, too, played his part in prompting the financial dis-investment that would cripple those states.

Among those most closely associated with it, there is a tendency to regard Ramphal’s stewardship (1975–90) as the ‘golden age’ of the Commonwealth. Certainly, it has declined since. Its very flabbiness has left it open to assiduous lobbying: the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka was – thanks to a weak secretary-general – able to capture CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) for its capital, Colombo. Rajapaksa’s government was thus validated after its brutal war against the Tamils. (More than half the Commonwealth heads boycotted the meeting, but Tony Abbott was there, loudmouthing the regime in exchange for their being tough on boat people.) Then, soon after she took office, the standing of the present incumbent, Baroness Scotland, was damaged by a financial scandal. Yet somehow the Commonwealth keeps on keeping on, as if by sheer inertia.  

The pro-EU march from Hyde Park to Westminster in London on March 25, 2017 (photograph via Ilovetheeu/Wikimedia Commons)The pro-EU march from Hyde Park to Westminster in London on March 25, 2017 (photograph via Ilovetheeu/Wikimedia Commons)

This is all the more amazing as there has always been a contradiction at its core. The Commonwealth ideology projects it as dating only from 1949, the Empire becoming merely a kind of prehistory. But ordinary white Britons, in so far as the Commonwealth has any resonance for them at all, feel some affinity with distant kinsfolk in the ‘old Dominions’. The difference has been wilfully smudged by many Brexiteers, pretending that there is still something there for Britain to reach out to once Europe has gone. UKIP advocated setting up a Commonwealth Free Trade Area: ‘Empire 2.0’, jeered The Times. It is a sad delusion, a fantasy of reconnection. And then there’s Boris Johnson, he who thinks of himself as a new Winston Churchill but resembles an Old English Sheepdog: herding the mob in the wrong direction, as if over the White Cliffs of Dover. Last year he visited Australia, projecting Britain as returning to an old love. But the world has changed. Apart from our own different view of it, and trade patterns, only 1.6 per cent of Britain’s trade is now with Australia.   

Philip Murphy (photograph via Twitter)Philip Murphy (photograph via Twitter)Philip Murphy is concerned with political history, so some things are missed. I wonder, for example, about the significance of the massive reduction in scholarships, which once brought eager (Commonwealth) students to Britain from across the world. But the wonderfully titled The Empire’s New Clothes is a blast of fresh air, written with style and relish. More to the point, there is real anger here. ‘The main danger to the UK, as was amply demonstrated in the 2016 EU referendum,’ he concludes in the book, ‘is the myth of the Commonwealth. It is increasingly being commandeered by a grim collection of charlatans, chancers and outright villains. Our old comfort blanket has become toxic. It’s time to grow up and set it aside.’ Amazing stuff, from the Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London.

Meanwhile – as I write this review – the ever-engaging Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle are taking Australia by storm. (The announcement of the impending royal birth, just as they landed here, was a PR masterstroke.) Philip Murphy, in that excoriating final paragraph, says that the monarch, as head of an agglomeration of different realms (Queen of Australia, Queen of the Solomon Islands, etc.) may continue as a multiple presence for some years yet. Certainly, in Australia, the monarchy and the Commonwealth are seen as pretty much the same thing. That Harry and Meghan could draw a crowd of thirty thousand in Dubbo – and that the television cameras were eager to light on obvious multiculturals for their favourable response – tells us that the narrative here still has quite a way to run. 

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Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson is an historian and biographer, and a former editor of Meanjin. His biographies Lyrebird Rising (of the musical patron Louise Hanson-Dyer) and A Three-Cornered Life (the historian Keith Hancock) have won major awards. His most recent books are Moments in Time: A Book of Australian Postcards (2016) and A Fuhrer for a Father (2017). He is currently writing a double biography of two literary magazine editors, Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland.

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