Ed West

Can Britain leave the Commonwealth?

Can Britain leave the Commonwealth?
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My dad used to tell me that when he was a foreign correspondent in the 1960s he was once assigned to the Gambia where, upon arriving at the airport, some man started trying to sell him a watch. Brushing aside the persistent chap, dad finally said ‘sorry, I’m going to be late for my meeting with the foreign secretary’, only for the man to tell him ‘I am the foreign secretary’. They got on famously, my dad said.

I imagine the standard of African politician at the time was probably higher than it is now. The current Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, is a borderline lunatic who once claimed to have invented a cure for Aids using African herbs, forces suspected witches to drink hallucinogenic drugs, and recently said that homosexuality was one of the three greatest threats to humanity.

Still, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and I can’t help but agreeing with President Jammeh in his recent assessment of the Commonwealth of Nations: that it’s a total and utter waste of time. He’s now withdrawn his little country from the organisation, thus reducing the size of the Commonwealth’s cougar-based sex economy substantially.

As its leaders meet this week, Roger Boyes notes in the Times that it the Commonwealth is basically ‘a country club for corrupt leaders’, while the Guardian reported on Monday that 41 out of its 53 members states still treat homosexuality as a crime. And let’s not forget that one of the organisation’s three nuclear powers still has the death penalty for blasphemy, and treats its Christian and Ahmadi Muslims minorities appallingly.

What is it exactly that links this motley crew of countries, apart from the fact that they all used to be ruled by Britain against their will?

It’s like the world’s largest and most awkward school reunion, in which half of the old boys have grown up to be crack addicts, the exception being Singapore, the no-friends computer geek who started his own tech firm at 22 and now drives a Ferrari. In which case Britain is basically the elderly, doddery teacher who abused them back in the day; not a monstrously evil paedo – that would be Belgium – just one of those touchy-feely old masters who makes the odd inappropriate lunge, the sort who might have been played by the late Richard Griffiths.

Apart from the countries actually colonised by British people, none of us really have anything in common, and even the link of the English language extends beyond the old empire and has more to do with American dominance. Of course you could point out that many Commonwealth soldiers fought for Britain in world wars, but then so did many Poles.

Jammeh accuses the Commonwealth of neo-imperialism, but if that were true I’d have some sympathy for it. If there was any evidence that the Commonwealth was able to influence other countries into becoming more like us – which is, deep down, what we want although we’re too two-faced to say it – then it’d be worth forcing the poor queen to shake the hands of these blood-soaked kleptocrats, but there isn’t. So can Britain leave the Commonwealth?

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

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