The Commonwealth: 53 countries, united under a single banner
Seventy years ago today the modern Commonwealth was formed with the signing of a treaty in London – but what role does it play in 21st century life?
It was 70 years ago today that the London Declaration which formed the modern Commonwealth was signed.
Since then, the confederation of 53 countries – mostly former territories of the British Empire – has had a chequered history.
It was accused of “dithering” while a political crisis engulfed Zimbabwe, which ultimately resulted in the country being suspended from the institution, for example.
But supporters of the family of nations believe it has allowed countries to unify around common causes like climate change or challenging Apartheid – and ultimately, through unity, it can affect change.
But 70 years on from its inception, does the Commonwealth still have relevance?
As the Brexit debate rumbles on in the House of Commons Anton Gunter, the managing director of Global Freight in Telford, believes Britain’s exit from the EU would give the Commonwealth a new importance.
“Now that we are leaving the EU there is an opportunity for us to grow and in the EU we can’t do deals with the Commonwealth,” he says. “This should soften the impact of Brexit if we can make these deals. There are some massive countries in the Commonwealth, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh, Ghana, and there are massive deals to be done if we want it.
“The Commonwealth was a powerhouse in the 50s, 60s and 70s in terms of trading and Brexit can re-ignite its importance. The Commonwealth can again rise to prominence if we don’t focus so much attention on Europe. It could be a win/win for everyone the Commonwealth, from the massive countries to the smaller ones.”
On April 26, 1949, the heads of government from Australia, Britain, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa plus Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs signed the London Declaration.
King George VI was recognised as Head of the Commonwealth and following his death, the Commonwealth leaders recognised Queen Elizabeth II in that capacity.
Throughout her reign the Queen has been a passionate supporter and last year her son and heir Prince Charles was named as the next head of the Commonwealth when the leaders of its member nations met at Windsor Castle.
The Commonwealth’s secretary-general Baroness Patricia Scotland said that trade between member states is expected to grow to £1.5 trillion by 2030.
A 2015 Commonwealth trade review revealed it was on average 19 per cent cheaper for countries to trade together because of these similarities, and around £454 billion of “intra-Commonwealth” trade was being generated.
“Normally you trade with the people nearest you and you trade less with the people who are the furthest away,” she said. “What we found was in the Commonwealth that was not necessarily true, because of these old historical links.
“One of the things I’ve been saying since 2016 when I became secretary-general, so before Brexit, was what if we could change the 19 per cent advantage we currently have – what if we could turn that into a 30 per cent advantage?
“What if we could start feeding this family? What huge benefits could that bring.”
Aside from trade and political relationships the Commonwealth Games is seen as a celebration of the family of nations. In 2022, the games are coming to Birmingham.
Sandwell Council recently approved plans for a £60 million aquatics centre in Smethwick which will include a 50 metre Olympic-sized pool, and events such as judo, road cycling and mountain biking will be held in the Black Country.
Hugh Porter and his wife Anita Lonsbrough from Wolverhampton are both gold medal winners in the Commonwealth Games in cycling and swimming.
“The games brings together nations and rings together sporting friendships,” says Hugh, who took gold in pursuit cycling at the 1966 Kingston games.
“It’s all about bringing together the more successful countries and those that are struggling a bit across the Commonwealth and it gives athletes and people the chance to work together, and that’s not just from a sporting perspective.
“The Commonwealth Games in 2022 is an opportunity for the country, Birmingham and the West Midlands to showcase itself.”
Anita took five gold medals in a number of swimming events at the 1958 Cardiff games and the 1962 Perth games.
“The sporting element of the games is obviously the most important part,” she says.
“But the Commonwealth Games are also known as the friendly games. The countries all speak English and can clearly communicate with each other and create a community. It really promotes the Commonwealth and it’s a great honour for those that compete.”