It is easy to deride the Commonwealth as an irrelevance and an anachronism, which is doubtless why so many do. Its biennial summit, the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting, has long suffered its ungainly acronym, CHOGM, being translated as Crooks Holidaying On Government Money – and persistent but regrettable rumours have certain reluctant British attendees rendering the C-word as something rather worse.
This year’s CHOGM, taking place in Perth, Australia, offers cynics yet further ammunition. The headline accomplishment of the conference is the abolition of male primogeniture in the succession to the throne of the United Kingdom, meaning that the crown will henceforth be passed to the monarch’s first-born regardless of their gender (had the current Queen a brother, even a younger one, she would have remained Princess Elizabeth).
This is a trivial rearrangement of an absurd means of choosing a head of state, which isn’t even of interest to most of CHOGM’s attendees – of the Commonwealth’s 54 member nations, 38 are republics.
However, that very fact alone suggests that the Commonwealth is still of some value to its members. And it’s also worth noting that countries continue to want in, even if they have little or no tie to the British Empire, of which the Commonwealth is the most prominent descendent organisation. Mozambique, formerly a Portuguese colony, joined in 1995. Rwanda, once a Belgian possession, became the Commonwealth’s newest member in 2009. It cannot simply be that they fancy their chances of a few easy gold medals against Kiribati, Tonga or Tuvalu at the next Commonwealth Games.
The Commonwealth is now best thought of as the diplomatic equivalent of a Pall Mall gentlemen’s club – a somewhat fusty institution which nevertheless allows members to believe that they have accomplished something by being included, and that they are in some respect that little bit better than their unadmitted peers. The Commonwealth, like the Athanaeum or the Reform, does bounce members who fail to comport themselves according to its strictures. In the last decade alone, Zimbabwe, Fiji and Pakistan have been suspended from the Commonwealth for failing to act like civilised democracies.
This sanction does seem to carry weight – a noteworthy failure of this CHOGM has been the inability to agree to the appointment of a commissioner to ensure that such standards were being met. The host, Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard, who supported the proposal, made the splendidly understated observation that “a number of delegations were concerned” by the idea of such an umpire judging their behaviour.
Other pan-national organisations are linked by economic or military necessity. The Commonwealth is linked, at least in theory, by a shared appreciation for democracy, human rights and rule of law. It’s quaint, corny and archaic. But nice ideas often are.