With the recent summit in London, columnists from Delhi to Wellington have been asking whether there's still a role for the Commonwealth on the world stage. In Britain, the question is a particularly pressing one, since the UK is now effectively at a crossroads. Soon to exit Europe, renewing its ties to its traditional allies would seem an obvious thing to do.
But that's not the way it seems to a lot of left-wingers, for whom a pivot away from Europe and towards the Commonwealth seems like a turn away from a utopian future into an atavistic past. For them, the EU is a beacon of democracy and cosmopolitanism; the Commonwealth, by contrast, is nothing more than an imperialist holdover, a nightmarish projection of the Little Englander mentality onto the globe.
Let's get one thing straight. The Commonwealth charter doesn't contain 'rebuilding the British Empire' as one of its key aims. Instead, it's focused on aspirations like 'international peace,' 'tolerance, respect, and understanding,' and 'gender equality.' How could a progressive possibly be against it?
'Sure, but those are just its aspirations. What's the reality?' Well, let's see how the Commonwealth measures up as a force for liberal ideas compared to its much-trumpeted rival, the EU.
We can start with democracy. Of course, the EU talks a good game on democracy. But here's a simple question: how many countries have ever been expelled or suspended from the EU for a poor record on elections, due process, or the rule of law? The answer is zero, even though there have been some very good candidates for suspension lately. By contrast, the Commonwealth has suspended a number of countries for failing to meet basic standards of good governance.
What about cosmopolitanism? Surely the EU wins here. Not so. The Commonwealth includes more nations from more continents. Its peoples practice more religions and speak more languages. Even its whitest, most culturally homogenous countries (the UK, Australia, Canada) are far more ethnically diverse than Denmark or Sweden, and have a better record on racism than Italy or Greece.
If you're concerned about economic egalitarianism as well as other types, the Commonwealth still has more potential than the EU. The EU is meant to have brought rich and poor together in Europe, but 'rich and poor' are relative terms. It's true that the EU integrated Poland and Romania, but those are wealthy countries compared with India or Tanzania.
Now, you might well complain at this point that that's all very well, but the Commonwealth does very little in practice to alleviate poverty, and that its record in promoting democracy could be stronger. But that would be an argument for a stronger Commonwealth, not that it should be abandoned.
It's true, of course, that the origins of the organization lie in the British Empire. But the organization has never espoused imperialism - in fact, the whole point of it was to find a way to encourage collaboration between a set of independent nations in the absence of Empire.
What we find ourselves with, by an accident of history, is an organization with huge potential for good in the world - and not just good of the sort that would appeal to right-wingers, but good of the sort that should appeal to everyone, and especially progressives.
It's a club of democracies - like the EU, supposedly - but unlike the EU it's not defined by ethnicity or geography. It's one of the few international organizations that includes members from the rich world and the 'global south.'
So let me ask again: how could you possibly be against such an organization, especially if you're on the left? I think there's only one possible reason: if, in spite of the organisation's explicit disavowal of colonialism, the liberal aspirations clearly stated in its charter, and its long record as a force for good, you were still so obsessed by imperialism and tribal affiliation that you couldn't bear to support something you see as 'right-wing.'
If that was the case, it would be a pity, and not just for you. It would be a a great pity for a world which could use some more of those fine liberal aspirations actually becoming a reality.
Sam Butler is an English settler in New Zealand, a writer and an anti-intellectual. He tweets @ErewhonNam.