Andrew Yong is a public lawyer who writes on citizenship issues and is the director of Global Britons, a campaigning body for the rights of residual British nationals.
Last week Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, reportedly said that the UK must trade more with Commonwealth countries in order to counter China’s “grave threat to our values and way of life”.
This comes on the back of successful free trade agreements signed with Australia and New Zealand in December and February, which expanded both economic and people-to-people ties with these two countries, increasing mobility for young people and professionals wishing to live and work overseas.
The Commonwealth has featured more highly in the nation’s consciousness this year than it does in ordinary times, with Commonwealth flags being paraded during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the Prince of Wales opening both the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda and the current Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Yet in all these public invocations of “the Commonwealth”, there lies a failure to distinguish between the formal association, with its increasingly eclectic and diverse mix of members – some of which, like recent admittees Gabon and Togo, have no historical ties at all to the UK – and the smaller subset of countries, the Commonwealth Realms such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who maintain close constitutional links through a shared monarchy.
The danger of the recent expansions of Commonwealth membership to countries with no history of British administration is that membership becomes increasingly meaningless and devoid of content.
The Commonwealth at its inception was an association of countries “united by a common allegiance to the Crown”. But from the 1950s, republics and indigenous monarchies were permitted to become or remain as members. The Queen, while recognised as the Head of the Commonwealth, is now only the head of state in 15 member states: the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, plus a number of countries in the Caribbean and Pacific.
In November last year, Barbados became the most recent Commonwealth realm to become a republic. Other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, Belize and St Vincent and the Grenadines are reportedly looking at following suit.
While it may be debatable whether any these moves can be attributed to Chinese efforts to undermine Britain’s historical status as a key partner of these Caribbean nations (as Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, has reportedly claimed), there can be no doubt that the UK has failed to make full use of the policy tools that are at its disposal to maintain and strengthen the economic and people-to-people ties that bind the Queen’s realms, whose continued existence contributes to the prestige of the British Crown.
Being a member of the Commonwealth has a number of benefits, such as access to the political, economic and technical support of Commonwealth conferences and institutions.
Commonwealth citizens also enjoy particular advantages in the UK, such as the right to vote and the ability to serve in the Armed Forces. Since the 1960, however, many key benefits of membership such as free movement and visa-free travel have fallen away, as is inevitable given the loosening of political and economic relations within the Commonwealth.
However, the changes that have occurred over the decades have generally been applied without any distinction between those countries that have and those that have not maintained constitutional ties to the British Crown. The abolition of Commonwealth free movement to the UK in 1962, for instance, applied as much to the inhabitants of realms such as Australia and New Zealand as to those of republics such as India and Pakistan.
At present, the UK fails completely to offer any special advantage or preference to those Commonwealth countries that have maintained links to the British monarchy, other than access to the British honours system (ten Commonwealth countries still award the Order of the British Empire) and the occasional invitation to a royal wedding or funeral.
There is little wonder that Britain’s fellow Commonwealth realms continue to drift away when there are no benefits to membership.
One benefit of wider Commonwealth membership that was recently withdrawn by the UK Government is the Commonwealth Working Holidaymakers’ scheme.
The scheme, which allowed young Commonwealth citizens between the ages of 17 and 30 to spend a two-year working holiday in the UK, was closed in 2008 and reopened as a series of bilateral Youth Mobility arrangements with a limited number of countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Monaco, San Marino, Iceland, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan).
Bilateral arrangements may be appropriate where it is necessary to encourage reciprocity and to facilitate the movement of people with countries with a similar level of economic development to the UK. One example of this is the opening of electronic passport gates to nationals of a similar group of developed countries as well as the EEA. Another is the CANZUK proposal, which envisages the UK concluding reciprocal bilateral freedom of movement deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
But the Government should also look for suitable ways in which all the nationals of the Queen’s realms (including residual British nationals such as British Nationals (Overseas) and British Overseas Citizens) can be given preferential treatment over those who do not share this unique constitutional relationship with the British Crown.
One such “benefit of membership” could be a new Queen’s Scholarship (similar to the one established in the colonial Far East in honour of Queen Victoria) which would be awarded to the most outstanding of the Queen’s subjects wishing to go to university in the UK. Another should be a new Platinum Jubilee Youth Mobility Scheme open to the young people of all of the Queen’s realms, along the lines of the defunct Commonwealth Working Holidaymakers’ scheme.
The UK has for too long sought to appear indifferent to the fate of the monarchy in other Commonwealth nations. This complacency should end: we must now recognise that Global Britain is enhanced and elevated by our shared global monarchy, and put in the appropriate resources to support it.