Interview with the Chair of the United Commonwealth Society
|Above: The emblem of the United Commonwealth Society.|
The Commonwealth of Nations (the worldwide union of sovereign states which succeeded the British Empire) has been in the news a lot lately, with the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, the Windrush scandal involving immigrants from former colonies which are now Commonwealth countries, and the confirmation that HRH Prince Charles is to succeed Her Majesty The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. This Tuesday I inteviewed Jon-Paul Teasdale, the current Chair of the "United Commonwealth Society", an organisation dedicated to encouraging greater unity in the Commonwealth. Prior to his election as Chairman, Mr Teasdale has been the UK representative and Vice-Chair of the Society. Keep reading to see what he had to say about this fascinating pressure group, and the Commonwealth of Nations as a whole. My words are underlined and in italics, whereas Mr Teasdale's are not.
What is the United Commonwealth Society? What are its aims and principles?
The United Commonwealth Society is concerned with the closer co-operation of the sixteen Commonwealth Realms and the further strengthening of bonds between all member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations. We are an unincorporated association and all work and effort is voluntary and politcally neutral.
And what does the Society do to accomplish these aims? What have you done in the past? Tell me a little about the organisation's history.
At this current time, and for the last few years, we have concentrated mainly on establishing a social media and web presence to get our message established. We have plans this term to move forward in our efforts, especially now that we have funds behind us, so we will use advertising, sponsored posts, letters to prominent politicians and leaders to get our message deeper into where it can make a difference.
The Society was founded in 2002 by our Chair Emeritus Nick Thompson. We were one of the first, if not the first, modern organisation to propose the closer union and partnership of the Commonwealth Realms. The term CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom) was coined by the Society when it was still known as the Federal Commonwealth Society. In the early years interest grew rapidly and we had names such as Paul Nuttall working with my predecessors.
The early years were pre-social media and so progress was slow. Some of the organisations that are now promoting our original ideas have either been or are members of the Society or have worked in partnership with us.
That's very interesting.
As you know, the idea of some sort of CANZUK union has really taken off since the referendum on Great Britain's membership of the European Union.
That's right. It's brilliant to see and be a part of it.
So would you describe yourself as optimistic about the United Commonwealth Society's aims?
I have been optimistic since I joined in 2012. The beauty is the simplicity.
What do you mean by that?
You have many that talk about freedom of movement, we can discuss this further shortly, political union, currency unions, free trade etc. etc. but at its heart, the most simple union is that of family. Especially the CANZUK four, but also the other Commonwealth Realms, there is a connection through family, or at the very least through our shared Queen that is unique in the world. All it would take is a simple meeting between the prime ministers of each realm on a regular basis. They would discuss shared issues and goals and then when they come to speak on an international platform they can all sing from the same hymn sheet.
One would think the European Union project would give you hope. How quickly it has developed into a powerful confederation, after only about 50 years - which is nothing in historical terms.
The majority of our members know that the European project, at least in Britain, was and is based on deceit. The only hope it gives is that with the right will and people in place it can be done.
Indeed. I was about to ask, how do you see this greater union amongst Commonwealth countries as coming about?
No referendums, no constitutional changes, no 2000+ page legal documents. The traditional view is that the prime ministers of each realm would publicly and formally meet, I guess under the banner of CANZUK. The Society itself knows that it is a long game and so any small steps taken will eventually grow fruits. As I said previously, other organisations now are involved and there are a couple of petitions circulating and some high profile politicians and political correspondents. Because of our voluntary and grass roots base we work with the tools and skills we have, but I have ambitious plans for this and my next term to push the Society back into the spotlight.
In a lengthy discussion a while ago in our Facebook group it was acknowledged that to force through the change we want to see we need to convince as many ordinary people as possible that it is the right and sensible thing to do. Look at the difference the European Union achieved over 40+ years. Compare the enthusiasm for being a member in 2016 with that at the first referendum. You need the man or woman on the street to also know and care.
If it is a "long game", does this not present the problem of the Commonwealth realms potentially drifting apart? The main argument for Commonwealth unity is that, due to their shared British heritage, the Commonwealth realms are so similar, in culture, law, system of government, etc. This was certainly the case just over 100 years ago, when the idea of a pan-Anglo "Imperial Federation" was on the cards. But since then our former Dominions have drifted apart from their mother country, becoming more Americanised and independent. Canada has become an American protectorate, and Australia and New Zealand have adopted different voting systems. The Americanisation is most aptly represented by the replacement of their currencies with "dollars" and "cents".
I would argue this was the result of the World Wars which we forced our poor colonies into. In WW1 we forced the ANZACs into the bloodbath of Gallipolli, and in WW2 we abandoned Australia, who had to be rescued by, you guessed it, the Americans. It seems to me that these conflicts did much to forge Canadian/Australian/New Zealand national identities and separate them from Great Britain.
But I digress. My point is, if the Commonwealth realms have diverged from each other this much already in the last 100 years, how different may they be from each other in the next 100? Isn't this a danger if you're playing the "long game"?
I have a few thoughts on this.
When I say the Society knows it's a long game it's because we all understand how politics works. There is no definition of long. The European project is an example of a very long game. Very calculated and precise. That topic would have to be for another day.
We know that things won't change this year, as an example. With Brexit in the air, NAFTA in the air, Chinese and Russian posturing in the air it would be unlikely for our ideas to materialise. But, when you begin to drop the pieces into place, get Brexit out of the way (which by the way when I joined the Society in 2012 the idea that Britain would actually leave the EU was so remote, but look at us now).
Now, the build up of the separation of the realms...
I must be careful not to mix too much of my own theories and speculation with that of printed knowledge. Conspiracies abound about the start of both WWI and WWII. If we go with the standard narrative Britain and her Empire were drawn into two long and bloody wars. Of course the Empire and young Commonwealth would assist Britain, it was to be expected, and you can fully understand why in WWII some of the dominions wanted to assert their independence from the British Parliament, even if just for show, to ensure the support of their peoples.
Personally, and I know some of our members will agree, the US took advantage of Britain's position. The US knew that as soon as Britain borrowed just one dollar that they would call the shots and low and behold once the war was over Britain began the process of dismantling her Empire.
Since WWII there has been an invisible force that has wanted to see the end of the British Empire and it continues to this day wanting to weaken the Commonwealth.
However... as the European Union has found out, blood is thicker than water. It is this family connection, whether through real blood relatives or our cultural family, that will see our end goal realised.
Through the UN, IMF, World Bank, US, etc. the West Indies, Pacific and African Commonwealth countries have been crippled financially and economically. I can't remember the quote but it goes along the lines of you don't need war to cripple a nation.
What people don't realise at this time is that unless the realms and the wider Commonwealth band together and speak with a unified voice then we will all get swallowed up into regional unions.
You're absolutely right. The United Kingdom still hasn't paid off her WW1 debt to the United States, let alone our WW2 debt. There can only be one Global Hegemon at a time. It was us from the Napoleonic Wars till the First World War. Since then it's been the United States. That's no coincidence.
I agree, it is no coincidence. A clear signal given is that despite meeting the criteria, the US will not join the Commonwealth.
I think that's largely to do with America's history. It was founded as a rebellion against Great Britain. The same can be said of the Republic of Ireland.
Ireland I completely agree. While there are obviously similarities the differences are too great. Even at their own cost they will do anything and everything to not follow the UK or Commonwealth's lead.
The US is an interesting topic for discussion. Today's US again I agree completely. The politicians and corporations are too power hungry. The old US I think may have been a bit more open to the idea but obviously with conditions.
Indeed, Ireland has taken the metric system further than we have, and has adopted proportional voting, and republicanism. And it's more pro-European than us. Anything to assert its difference from us.
We'll see after Brexit how quickly Ireland realises that they need the UK.
Well, the further they drift from us, the further they drift into the arms of Europe. They're not becoming more independent. They're just replacing one union with another.
What is the "end goal", then? How far are you prepared to take Commonwealth unity? A purely advisory pan-CANZUK body, or a confederation akin to the EU?
The end goal is no longer a fixed destination. In the early days of the Society a federal set up was proposed with a centralised parliament for the CANZUK countries dealing only with areas that were common e.g. defence, foreign policy, travel. Other members could be admitted if they were at a par with the original four. For a newbie like me it was interesting that this also included the possibility of the likes of Singapore or South Africa who are both republics.
Today the idea of uniting the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Realms or just CANZUK is just as fragmented as the recent Leave campaign in Britain was.
So the United Commonwealth Society is a broad church with the general aim of greater Commonwealth unity?
There are still those that dream of a unified country with the Queen at its head. All of Her peoples united once more.
Definitely a broad church...
Or there are those, like myself, that would be content with a model similar to the Nordic Council where each member is still a fully sovereign country, but collaborate on common areas.
Explicitly, what are the benefits of increased Commonwealth unity? Why do we need greater Commonwealth unity at all? Can't we keep things as they are?
The minimalists among us simply want free trade, freedom of movement, and maybe a common defence policy. These are to the point where they discount anything else except for similar standards as a measure. This is where CANZUK comes in. The four countries are so similar that we may as well have all the things we want.
The benefit for the wider world is a safer world that becomes more balanced. Approximately 120 million people in a Realm Union, 2 billion people in the wider Commonwealth. Those are not insignificant numbers. A unified voice would help in times of conflict and disaster response.
Right, you mean that because we are so similar, there are fewer obstacles to our unity. Unlike, say, with the European Union.
There are differences between the four, but those differences are cherished and admired and sometimes envied. The EU has forced 28 countries that are so dissimilar together and expects to function as one. The only way the EU can succeed is by making each member-state the same. Hence Brexit.
Yes. This would have forced us to replace our common law system with civil law, for example. And perhaps adopt proportional representation.
Imagine if the Commonwealth disappeared. All 53 members decide to go their separate ways. The UN is not equal and has an agenda or two that run contrary to the Commonwealth's. The World Trade Organisation again is not equal. There are more. If each individual Commonwealth country fully went on their own all I can see is corporate and foreign predators waiting in the wings to take them over. The world would change massively in a short time. I don't believe for the better.
We have talked a lot about the CANZUK countries, which are so obviously similar due to their shared British ancestry, which resulted in shared language, shared culture, shared law system, shared government system, even shared monarch. But what about those other members of the Commonwealth, which have different languages, cultures, law & government systems, etc.?
This is where in our motto we say "emboldening the Commonwealth". Rightly or wrongly, there are many views on how decolonisation should have happened; many countries achieved independence in a short time. Some remained subject to the British Crown, others decided to go it alone. Through the power of the English language and the connections of friendship, family and history it is much, much easier to transact with a fellow Commonwealth country than with a completely foreign one.
This is true. For example, our shared histories are always brought up whenever we want to strike up a trade deal with India.
The Commonwealth Secretariat believes there is a Commonwealth Advantage of 19% when trading within the Commonwealth. Ease of commerce, language, transfer of people etc.
India is always used as an example I would say because of how controversial our shared history, but also how unique our shared future is.
And with India becoming one of the world's biggest economies, we really should be stressing these links.
The "Jewel in the Crown". India has the potential to eclipse anything the world has seen so far. They have the drive and technical knowledge to dominate all key areas, however, they don't. This is where the Commonwealth comes in.
I've just about run out of questions and we've nearly been talking for two hours so I think it's fair to let you get on with your day. One final question:
The Commonwealth has been in the news a lot recently due to the recent summit of Commonwealth leaders in the UK, and the assurance that HRH Prince Charles will succeed Her Majesty The Queen as the next Head of the Commonwealth. There has also been the simultaneous Windrush scandal which has involved immigrants from Carribbean Commonwealth countries. Some have accused the Commonwealth of being an outdated relic of the Empire. Do you have any comment to make on these recent events?
The Commonwealth knows its roots. I truly believe that the Commonwealth is the British Empire's evolution into a free association of sovereign countries that are all working to improve the lives of their peoples. Contrast the British Empire to the Spanish, French or German empires and you will see the difference and why the Commonwealth is still relevant and important. The members of the Commonwealth seem to genuinely care about each other and celebrate each other.
Recent news has definitely been a mixed bag.
I think the chair of the CHOGM being in the UK, especially close to Brexit is so well timed as to almost be perfect. The Commonwealth was able to have its voice heard among all the domestic rabble in the UK's tabloids.
The continuation of the Royal Family being the Head of the Commonwealth is a relief for many. At this juncture a change of Head would have destabilised the Commonwealth. A politician as Head would not command the same respect.
The Windrush scandal; some of us have suggested that it has purposely been planted. Why was it only released now? At the time of a CHOGM? When the UK was hosting it? I have worked for the civil service and if someone lost or destroyed documents it's because they were told to.
The injustice to those families is a betrayal that Britain will take a long time to repair. It has taken so long to repair the damage done by our hand in the slave trade and this scandal unfortunately reopens old wounds.
I certainly think, the one thing that can be said of the British Empire with certainty, is that it learnt from the American Revolution, and with the exception of Ireland, its colonies by and large were granted independence peacefully, and it's remarkable that we still have this bond today.
Thank you for your time, Mr Teasdale.
Thank you very much.