Sunak was brutally honest, so let me return the favour: the Commonwealth today is irrelevant
As former colonies pay tribute to the unapologetic descendant of their imperial masters, Britain’s refusal to pay reparations for slavery makes a mockery of King Charles III’s coronation
BRITISH Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s shockingly dismissive words last week will no doubt return to haunt him, as such words have done for previous prime ministers and members of the royal family. He gave a resounding “no” to a request by the MP Bell Ribiero-Addy for an apology and a commitment to reparatory justice for the United Kingdom’s barbaric role in slavery.
Any human who has taken the time to learn and understand the impact of slavery, indentureship and colonialism would never have rejected that call.
“Trying to unpick our history is not the way forward,” Sunak told Parliament as the business secretary, Olukemi Olufunto “Kemi” Badenoch, nodded vigorously in agreement next to him. Sunak then proceeded to do what most politicians do: contradict themselves or try to “polish a sneaker”.
He said the focus should be “understanding our history and all its parts, not running away from it” while doing the opposite: running away from the issue, clutching his misunderstanding and all its parts. Foolish men who ignore history are always condemned to repeat it.
As we move closer to the coronation of King Charles, there will no doubt be further pressure on the membership of the Commonwealth because of Sunak’s unwise utterances, possibly among the most brutally honest words from a British leader. In other words, the UK will never entertain talks on reparations or apologise. The Caricom prime ministerial subcommittee on reparations and the Caribbean Reparations Commission (CRC) may as well stop wasting their time.
Caribbean and African leaders will no doubt sit upright in their comfort zones as members of this 56-nation farcical institution continue to be a support group for countries set back for centuries by slavery, indentureship and colonialism. By “set back”, I refer to the ladder of generational wealth of these displaced people that was for ever broken. Inherited wealth matters. The footprints of slavery, and the profits it bequeathed to generations in the West, still shape our present world.
Recently, Barbados confirmed its decision to remove the queen as its head of state as Jamaica also signalled its intent to “move on”. The move to republicanism has finally gripped these West Indian islands.
In the face of all of the unresolved issues of Britain’s colonial past – not just in the Caribbean but in African and Asian former colonies too – what really is the purpose of the Commonwealth if it will not engage with the past?
Its original purpose was one of economic benefit for members as well as having a collective voice, shared values and principles, and cultural and educational exchange. Some may also argue that it has been a favourable platform for soft power, a bridge between the global North and South, a tool for development and even a symbol of independence.
Critics, however, have countered that its legacy of colonialism and now neocolonialism has undermined its legitimacy and relevance, and that it is dominated by a few powerful members, such as the UK, India, and Canada, which has created unequal power dynamics and limited the representation and influence of smaller or less influential members.
More importantly, the Commonwealth’s ability to address critical issues, such as poverty, inequality, corruption and the climate crisis, has been questionable, as it has failed to take concrete actions or deliver tangible results.
Membership of the Commonwealth can be costly for some countries, particularly poor ones, and the organisation’s bureaucracy and administrative processes are slow and inefficient. It is simply a vessel of former colonies, with the former imperial master still at its helm.
Slavery, indentureship and colonialism were about corruption, greed and power. At present, companies listed on the London Stock Exchange control more than $1tn worth of Africa’s key resources: cobalt, gold, platinum, diamonds, oil and gas, as well as an area of land roughly four times the size of the UK.
For Britain, the Commonwealth has served very nicely to advocate for its preferences: liberalised, natural resources extractor-friendly regimes, low corporate tax rates, and a creative system of tax havens predominantly located in other Commonwealth countries. As a result, Africa loses £30bn more each year than it receives in aid, loans and remittances, while London facilitates global corruption as the money-laundering capital of Europe.
In 2014, several Caribbean countries attempted to sue the British government for reparations for four centuries of slavery, and Britain used jurisdiction issues arising from the Commonwealth to block the claim.
Those who insist slavery left no trace of intergenerational injustice, and that this is all ancient history, will be well served to recall the Windrush scandal. The UK government, under duress and much outcry, eventually met Caribbean leaders over the wrongful and cruel treatment of Windrush citizens and was forced into a U-turn.
It is hard to defend the existence of the Commonwealth in 2023, especially on economic grounds post-Brexit. Philip Murphy, former director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at London University, called it “an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia”. Advocates say that the members can always vote with their feet. That the Commonwealth is ultimately a voluntary organisation – unlike, obviously, the empire – and thus its members choose to stay. Has it been a meaningful choice?
For the majority of members, especially the 32 countries with populations of less than 1.5 million, that is questionable. Having been brought into the globalised economy through the empire under circumstances advantageous only to Britain, and now grappling with rising sea levels, drug trafficking, high crime rates, corruption and brain drains that characterise so many small nations, can they really go it alone now? Would a better alternative be for the Caribbean to join Africa and Asia in an economic union, or – controversially – the Brics nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa)?
Only by understanding these little-said truths can we understand its irrelevance. The Commonwealth, with all its pomp and ceremony, has had its day. Rishi Sunak, and the black and brown nodding heads at the time of his dismissive words, need to understand what happened to their ancestors under slavery and indentureship on those Caribbean plantations.
Maybe Oxford University could offer some history lessons to its political alumni. I look forward to seeing the many Commonwealth leaders in attendance at the coronation paying tribute to the unapologetic descendant of their former coloniser and imperial master.
About the writer: Kenneth Mohammed is a freelance writer, Caribbean analyst and senior adviser.–The Guardian.