A number of leading Brexiteers are currently floating the idea that perhaps we could compensate for our (likely) exclusion from the European Single Market by forging an alternative single market with our old Commonwealth ‘friends’. This harks back to late Victorian times, and in particular to Joseph Chamberlain’s scheme for an ‘Imperial Tariff Union’ or ‘Zollverein’ (modelled on the German), intended to shore up Britain’s waning world power, which came a cropper in the election of 1906 – the problem was that it would require imposing tariffs in order to be able to give Commonwealth countries exemptions – but was partially achieved after Britain abandoned universal free trade between the wars. The proposal to restore Commonwealth preference today looks like a reversion to that: to the bad old days of the British Empire, which the most reactionary old Blimps in the Tory party – and younger Blimps, like Boris – have always hankered for. So it should, of course, be rejected out of court.
But wait a minute. The Commonwealth as it evolved between the Wars wasn’t only a Blimpish thing. Anti-imperialists came to support the idea too, and indeed to wax quite enthusiastic about it, as an alternative to imperialism; the idea being, of course, that all the colonies of the Empire would become truly self-governing soon, and then agree voluntarily to be associated with Britain – the ‘mother country’ – on fully equal terms. That’s what happened, indeed, after World War II. If you were a ‘Commonwealth man’, as I was, it certainly did not mean that you were an imperialist. Just the opposite, in fact.
Among ‘Commonwealth men’ in the 1970s there was a great deal of reluctance to join the ‘Common Market’, as it was then, on the grounds, not of imperial nostalgia, but of true internationalism, which we thought was expressed by the Commonwealth better. One of the things that attracted us about the latter was its deliberate multiracialism (today more often called ‘multiculturalism’), by comparison with which the new European union appeared too much like a ‘white man’s club’. I can’t remember whether that was a crucial factor in my case when it came to the referendum of 1975, but it was certainly one that I took into account.
When we joined the Common Market, far more of our trade was done with the Commonwealth than with continental Europe, which is one of the things that made our adjustment more difficult in the years ahead. Australia and New Zealand felt rejected and betrayed. Patterns of trade in the world are very different these days, so it doesn’t follow that restoring our ties with our ex-colonies would redress that imbalance immediately. If we’re forced to go in that direction, however, there would be a certain historical logic to it; and a number of idealistic arguments that could be made out for it – mainly that true ‘internationalism’ should embrace the whole world, and all colours of people, and not just one pale pink continent.
To make it really idealistic, however, we should need to include African and Asian nations in our new Zollverein; and permit freedom of movement among them: as was the case, at least theoretically, at the Empire’s height. I’m not sure that the new Commonwealth men (and women) would swallow that.
Although the Commonwealth is still an organisation, it is of very little importance and members regard it as such.
Britain no longer has much power or much influence over its members. There is a good deal of residual resentment towards Britain, not only for joining the EU and not doing enough to safeguard the interests of Commonwealth trading partners, but colonial resentments, even in the Australia and New Zealand. The suspicion would be that Britain would be looking out for its own interests in unequal trading relationships.