The Commonwealth Shame

It’s that time again where everyone remembers the Commonwealth Games exists – a large-scale sporting event bringing together countries connected by good old-fashioned imperialism. The Olympics’ younger and even more problematic brother is back, this time held in Gold Coast, Australia. Although it might seem like a benign exhibition of sporting talent and prowess, the Games are not without controversy. As with other mass competitions like this, the Games have in the past been dogged with criticisms of excessive budgets and negative effects on local populations, as was seen right here in Glasgow in 2014. Residents argued that many local amenities had been demolished and new arenas would do little to help. But more than this, the Commonwealth Games has a deeply questionable basis, founded as it is from the murk of the British Empire.

In these games, 71 teams (some of which are dependent territories below state-level) will compete from the 53 members of the Commonwealth of Nations, which are Great Britain and countries which were once ruled by Britain. It’s a weird premise, when you think about it, and not all that positive.

The Commonwealth of Nations was formed during the independence struggles of various British-ruled countries in the middle of the 20th century, and was intended to preserve as much as was possible of the British Empire – a racist, exploitative, undemocratic and aggressive force on the world stage. The Games predate this, beginning in 1930 as the “British Empire Games”. The Commonwealth is a relic of our imperial past, and an outlet for our neo-colonial aspirations. Its charter outlines commitments to democracy, human rights, and international peace among other values, the hypocrisy of which is mind-blowing considering Britain’s track record. In this country we have largely moved away from the idea that an empire can be salvaged, (although not whether it should be, it seems), so why are we still a member of an organisation that was designed to prolong colonialism under another name?

British imperialism, from the early conquering of nations to contemporary political manoeuvrings, has always been self-serving. The British Empire devastated much of the world in order to benefit Britain and Britain alone. That motivation hasn’t changed all that much in the 80 years of the Commonwealth. Economic development in colonies was structured around the interests of the UK, leading to financial problems in many countries post-independence. To a certain extent, countries are still dealing with this legacy, and so the UK is able to benefit from trade with flawed economies that it designed. But we’re all friends now, so that’s okay I guess. Of course, nowadays nations within the Commonwealth choose to remain members. But more and more, its purpose and relevance is being questioned, leading us to wonder why it is still a thing at all?

If we examine the Commonwealth on the grounds where it claims legitimacy – protection of human rights and freedoms – it’s a piss poor state of affairs. The majority of member nations have anti-LGBT laws, with the most severe punishment being the death penalty in parts of Nigeria. Most of these laws were implemented by British colonial authorities. Rule-of-law violations are still commonplace in many nations and the Commonwealth has done pretty much nothing to combat that except for throw around a few buzz words.

So what is the Commonwealth apart from a placebo for the empire-sized hole in the hearts of British nationalists? Not much.

Following the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Conservative MP Heather Wheeler tweeted a picture of a medal tally from the “British Empire” including all those won by former colonies, adding: “Well done Team GB & all our Commonwealth friends, now for the Trade Agreements….” The Commonwealth acts as a salve for neo-imperialists who can’t stomach the thought that the sun did set on the empire and Britain is no longer the dominant force in the world. And unfortunately, a lot of these regressive thinkers have positions of power in our government.

If you too are plagued with news about Brexit, you’ll have noticed that there have been many calls to strengthen economic links with Commonwealth countries to make up for lost trade with Europe. In the eyes of some of these commentators and politicians, Britain still wields influence around the globe as the first amongst equals in a Commonwealth brotherhood of nations. Apart from simply being untrue, this belief shows a remarkably rosy-tinted view of Britain’s history with the countries it formerly repressed. And it doesn’t seem like Commonwealth countries are all that keen to get any closer to Britain.

As the opening ceremony of these games traced Australia’s history over the past 65,000 years, Aboriginal groups gathered outside the arena’s gates. They were there to protest the Commonwealth and the continued imperialism they face in Australia, with legacies of genocide and land grabs, and present day extreme poverty and social isolation. I’m all for people running fast or doing backflips, but we can’t separate the Commonwealth Games from the context in which they were founded and still exist. As a nation, we have to stop gazing lovingly back at a time when Britain did horrendous deeds on a global scale, and instead work for a genuinely fairer world order today.


[Louise Wylie – @womanpendulum]


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