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Common Ground (August 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

In the current climate, the Commonwealth takes on a new, radical significance - and Scotland has a role to play in it.


Since May we've been into the campaign for real politics, and Alex Salmond is a class brew, not something gaseous flogged by PR men. The world of Blair and Campbell, switched-on public charisma contrasted with obsessive private targeting and frightening torrents of neurosis, has dissolved. Salmond on song embodies what Richard Crossman called "the charm of politics", or Disraeli's "with words we govern men". Unpredictable, and maybe over-risky, but fascinating and fricative: bringing new ideas into play and reviving old ones.

Enter one old factor, sensed by Jack McConnell and broadened by his successor: the Commonwealth. Not post-Empire compensation but the ideology of David Lindsay's John the Commonweal and Scotland's Community of the Realm, which was the republicanism of George Buchanan. A flexible, conciliatory creed. Salmond has recognised - as Blair and Brown did not - that the Queen's Commonwealth loyalty gave her a flexibility in negotiation which Westminster politicians lacked. The resulting informal concordat between Strichen and Balmoral seems based on a pretty shrewd assessment of the life-chances of multi-national groupings. It could lead to somewhere big.

Once upon a time the market was supposed to do world relationships by itself but the credit crunch has shown just how opaque and downright fraudulent this claim was: all these computers and golden-handcuffed dealers have added up to pea-soup fog over international debt. Europe will sort itself out with the reform treaty, but it will be a Franco-German show. The politics of Dubya's Washington is corrupt on a scale so massive that South America is now in near-open revolt, by now probably beyond the grip even of the CIA. This will rebound on us.

We have lived in an American-determined world in which hyper-individuated goals, themselves unstable - own house, own car, holidays abroad - have contrasted with a collapsing public culture. This has probably been checked in "old Europe", because of the formal cultural power of the states, and distinctive language-politics, but not in Britain. We seem only united in being the drink, drugs, debt, sex, obesity and obscenity champions of the continent, and pretty miserable with it.

The post-empire vision has had too long a run, from the grand style of Churchill to the self-parody of Andrew Roberts. The real, and radical, Commonwealth comes from somewhere different, from democrats, often Scots, Welsh or Irish, who stood out against authoritarian governments and backed liberation movements: Lyon MacKenzie in Canada, Andrew Fisher in Australia. It was Eamon de Valera, during the truce negotiations of 1921, who created the doctrine of "external association". Initially a compromise which enabled Irish republicans to recognise the empire without submitting to it, it also owed much to another austere statesman who had also spent time shooting at British tommies: Jan Christiaan Smuts. Contrasting with the short-lived monarchism of Sinn Féin, which under Arthur Griffith envisaged a dual Anglo-Irish monarchy, modelled on Austria-Hungary, it would provide the formula which allowed republican India to remain in the Commonwealth in 1947, ironically two years before Ireland left it.

Given the present chaos in the international finance markets, the overdriven power-grab by the United States and its disastrous consequences, the Commonwealth takes on a new significance. It's an Anglophone grouping, but not one based on the domination of Washington, Wall Street, Whitehall or the City of London. Its secularism makes it multiracial and multi-faith: offering the chance for real-time communications and local patriotisms to bridge the dangerous gulf between Ben Barber's "McWorld and Jihad". Could it develop as a conduit between rich and poor nations, informed and critical forces in politics?

Amnesty International, CND, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, have had their origins in Commonwealth countries - though so, too, has Rupert Murdoch. Keeping it going has been the personal obsession of the Queen. It has been the refuge of several pretty unacceptable figures. Yet it has also nurtured great ones, inspirational or ingenious: Mandela, Nehru, Nyerere, Lee Kuan Yew, J K Galbraith, Eric Williams. The rise of India is a late but not an unexpected triumph: suggesting a future in which Delhi, Ottawa, Pretoria or - who knows? - Dublin host the conferences.

This is where Scotland's role lies on the liberation side. David Livingstone has been seen as "more Mandela than Rhodes". The Indian Congress was founded in 1885 by Allan Hume, and Patrick Geddes was, next to Gandhi, the greatest influence on Nehru. James Bryce's federal ideas provide a link between Canadian and Australian federation and European unity. John Buchan's last novel, Sick Heart River, 1939, looks forward to a multiracial Canada.

It may be that - aided by new communications - such links can form layers of interconnected networks, which can be activated to tackle pragmatically the mounting numbers of technical, legal and environmental challenges that don't fall into any predetermined political system. The Open University might serve as a prototype in the educational field. Mark Leonard and Jeremy Rifkin have recently written of the European Union in such terms, converting the "thin federalism" of treaties and committees by parallel "ways of doing" into something more complex, intelligent and responsive.

There's little evidence that this has had any profound effect on the coterie politics of London, but on Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin? Once you start thinking outside the devolution box, ideas grow legs.

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