Union of Commonwealth Realms: A good idea, 100 years too late.

by Elias Blum

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were various ideas circulating for ‘imperial confederation’ of the self-governing dominions. In fact, the kernel of it was arguably already there: an imperial defence council / imperial war cabinet, integration of the armed forces in things like defence procurement and officer training, regular heads of government meetings – with a small permanent secretariat, some common rules on things like merchant shipping, more or less free movement of persons within the empire, and some progress – although not much – towards an imperial free trade zone / customs union.

For some, in a post-Brexit world, the idea of a return to, say, a Union of Commonwealth Realms, holds renewed appeal. I’m not unsympathetic to that. The idea has, in principle, much to commend it: with a common language, similar institutions, shared legal frameworks, and a lot of shared cultural heritage, such a union would be a more ‘natural’ fit, in many ways, than the European Union.

One could imagine, for example, a Commonwealth ‘Schengen’ equivalent, with free movement between the realms. Or a Commonwealth ‘Erasmus’ equivalent, enabling students to study in other countries – and, except in Quebec (and parts of Mauritius and Vanuatu), they wouldn’t even have to learn French or any other language. With the US cooling in its support for NATO and the EU looking to form a common army, there could be a Commonwealth Defence Alliance. And that’s on top of whatever free trade zone / customs union / single market might be constructed.

A Commonwealth Union would need only thin and skeletal governing institutions, managing common affairs in a simple and intergovernmental way: an annual meeting of Heads of Government providing strategic direction, a Council of Permanent Representatives making policy decisions by qualified majority voting, a Secretariat to make it all happen, and that’s about it. Other, advisory and non-binding institutional co-operation could take place through co-operative bodies that already exist: the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Commonwealth Judges and Magistrates Association.

And of course, a Commonwealth Union could provide a solution to the Scottish question: status as an independent Realm within a Commonwealth Union would satisfy the nationalists, because Scotland would have as much independence as Canada or Australia – and rather more independence, in fact, than an EU member state has. The unionists would be happy because Scotland would still be part of a wider political, military and economic space that is recognisably British’ – albeit in a global rather than insular sense.

If different decisions had been taken in the 1890s or the 1920s, we might even be in such a world. But it was not to be. We are where we are. Maybe it was a good idea at the time, but we are 100 years too late for that. The British Empire, for good or ill, is over. Attempts to revive it are not only impractical but rather pathetic. The ties that bind us to our cousins across the seas are simply not strong enough to support anything more than the essentially voluntary cultural co-operation that exists in the existing Commonwealth.

The brilliant plan also rests on the assumption that the Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Anglophone Caribbeans, South Africans and others would want to be part of a Commonwealth Union. There’s nothing to suggest that they’d be willing to do that, or that it would be on balance advantageous to them. After all, it would separate them from their own regionally-bound trade and defence blocs.

There are other pragmatic considerations. Leaving the European Union, which has been six decades in the making, and trying to recreate some sort of Commonwealth Union from scratch would be huge project. All those infamous ‘banana rules’ would have to be re-written. We’d still need an equivalent to the ‘Social Chapter’ to protect workers’ rights, and an equivalent of the European Health Insurance Card so that, say, Australians and Canadians can use each other’s public healthcare systems without incident. That’s a lot of work. It could take decades.

So a Commonwealth Union or Union of Commonwealth Realms is perhaps a nice idea. It has a certain logic and appeal to it. But practically speaking it’s a non-starter. Like it or not, the future is European, not British. The Commonwealth connection will remain valuable, on the cultural and sporting level, but it cannot replace the EU as our primary trading bloc and primary political alliance.