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.