Recent days have propelled more than one formerly glorious institution with members around the world back into the spotlight. First Liverpool FC, then the Commonwealth of Nations through the Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM, sounding like an icky cough) and the Commonwealth Games.
I remember the Commonwealth having quasi-iconic status in my youth as a remnant of the British Empire, being quintessentially “British” in a global way like Hong Kong and Concorde (technically also French, but you know what I mean).
Yet unlike Concorde and British Hong Kong, it’s still there. A bit like The Simpsons, it continues to tick rather than hum along in the background after so many years, while the global conversation has moved on, to the EU, ASEAN and Africa, eyed by China and Macron. This in itself is pretty remarkable. The USSR imploded and the EEC is no longer a thing as such, yet the Commonwealth is still with us.
And it’s still relevant. They say that size doesn’t matter, but it surely plays its part. Numbering 2.4 billion people, the Commonwealth is not only bigger than Facebook – its citizens get to keep their data.
It also has breadth, wrapping itself around a fifth of the Earth’s territory. Comprising 53 member states (53 is apt, being the year The Queen was coronated and Everest was scaled for the first time), the Commonwealth includes large influential countries like Canada, Australia and Pakistan, and small countries like Tuvalu – a South Pacific island state, rather than a tickly organ in the back of the throat.
It’s this global reach that is enabling countries from across the Commonwealth to eliminate avoidable single use plastic in a bid to clean up the world’s oceans, from plastic bags to avoidable plastic waste – an admirable initiative that came out of the CHOGM (excuse me). A similar initiative to help protect the world’s rainforests, the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, was launched in 2015, with 40 countries now taking part.
As Britain pulls out of Europe, there will (probably) be more opportunities with Commonwealth nations, including fast-moving countries like India, Malaysia and Singapore, from trade deals to free movement.
But more than anything, there are shared interests between Commonwealth nations, which simply make working, living and doing business that little bit easier – the “softer” things in life.
As the Commonwealth was mostly the British Empire, member states share interests that are British in origin, like use of English, driving on the left, sports like rugby and cricket, and
picking a fight after last orders the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy (though it’s fair to say that “democracy” is loosely interpreted in at least one or two nations). In fact, Malaysia remains the most comfortable country I’ve lived and worked in, and I believe that familiar factors like the English language had much to do with it.
But these are still early days in the Brexit journey, and from my point of view there are institutional and brand challenges for the Commonwealth to overcome. The organisation still feels a bit…staid, and its not entirely clear what its purpose is.
Perhaps oceans, forests and young people point the way forward – an opportunity to use our links to positively impact lives and the world around us.