Amid the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, there are serious questions about the Commonwealth, one of the Queen’s most beloved associations, writes Danny Sriskandarajah of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
While public support for the monarchy is at an all-time high, the Queen’s popularity masks widespread disinterest and even some discontent about the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth – an association of 54 countries of which the Queen is head – is unique among multilateral organisations. It works on a consensus model with every country – from the largest to the smallest – sharing an equal voice. Membership is voluntary, predicated primarily on a country’s commitment to upholding certain shared values and principles, including the protection and promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Having served as its head for 60 of its 63 years, the Queen has long been called the “glue” that holds the modern Commonwealth together. Her father may have helped raise the association from the smouldering ashes of empire, but it is Queen Elizabeth who has presided over its growth and maturity.
In 2009 the Royal Commonwealth Society undertook the largest ever global public consultation on the Commonwealth in an effort to understand popular perceptions of and aspirations for the association.
“The Commonwealth Conversation” began with nationally representative opinion polls in seven Commonwealth countries: Jamaica, Australia, South Africa, India, Canada, Malaysia and the UK. The polls tested people’s knowledge, opinion and awareness of the Commonwealth. Their results uncovered a worrying mix of indifference, ignorance and imbalance.
An insidious malaise of indifference has permeated an association which once stood at the forefront of international affairs.
Support for the Commonwealth among developed countries – the association’s largest funders – is particularly low. For Britons, the Commonwealth comes a distant third in terms of importance behind Europe and America. In Australia, the UK and Canada, only about one third of people would be sorry if their country left the Commonwealth – the majority simply would not care.
Globally, only a third of people polled could name any activity carried out by the association, and the vast majority of those could cite only the Commonwealth Games. A quarter of Jamaicans think Barack Obama is the head and one in 10 Indians and South Africans think it’s Kofi Annan.
An insidious malaise of indifference has permeated an association which once stood at the forefront of international affairs. And as the Queen celebrates 60 years of dedicated service with no signs of stopping, the Commonwealth at 63 could very well be set for early retirement.
Queen and Commonwealth
Aside from the obvious historical credentials, the public seems no longer sure about what distinguishes the modern Commonwealth in a crowded marketplace of international actors.
The Queen opened last year’s heads of government meeting by wishing leaders well ‘in agreeing further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today’.
And during this Diamond Jubilee year, it has become increasingly clear that the Queen is its most valuable asset. Her convening power, brand recognition and international esteem are arguably the only thing keeping the association afloat.
More importantly, perhaps, the Queen herself has – in her own inimitable way – added to the calls for reform and renewal. Most recently, she opened last year’s Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Perth, Australia, by wishing the leaders present well “in agreeing further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow”.
The Commonwealth would do well to heed her words. For underpinning the countless ceremonies to mark her Diamond Jubilee, there is substance to support it. In 2012, we are not celebrating a monarch as much as we are celebrating a stateswoman, someone whose respect and moral authority has been earned by 60 years of steadfast service and conviction.