Third Eye

The sun has finally set on the British empire

Thursday, June 30th, 2022 05:05 | By
President Uhuru Kenyatta with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo/File

That the hitherto ubiquitous Western global influence is fast fading is fast becoming a reality as a result of several factors including self-inflicted wounds, and the changes in fortune from the inevitable passage of time.

Therefore, it is not surprising that there was scant attention this year on the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that started on June 20 and ended on Sunday 26th in Kigali, Rwanda. Experts say that the choice of Rwanda was a well-calculated strategy of appeasing those opposed to the controversial immigration deal between the East African country and the UK. Not that Rwanda is complaining, but it is still bad public relations for the UK to seem like it is discriminating against African immigrants.

In its heydays from the 18th to the 20th centuries, Britain was revered as “the empire on which the sun never sets” to signify its vastness. It had the highest number of territories in the world—in Africa, Asia, Europe, America, and numerous Islands—making it the largest empire in history. It is estimated that Britain controlled 25 per cent of the earth landmass, which meant that there was always daylight in one of its territories. But that is history with all these territories now independent States. 

Priorities for the Commonwealth countries, majority of who are developing, are now markedly different from the purported post-colonial camaraderie. There is no longer the desire to pursue the affirmation of the group’s common values and common strategy in the formulation and implementation of policies. Further, commitments made at the CHOGM are becoming increasingly irrelevant with new geopolitical realities and development needs of, and priorities between the member countries. 

Many of the Commonwealth member countries are now playing ball with new partners, mainly major developing countries in Asia with whom they truly share common values and aspirations. The countries are spending more time and energy implementing outcomes of groups like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation with its all-encompassing areas of cooperation. These range from fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, infrastructural development, agriculture and trade, to development of green technologies, health and professional exchanges.

The dynamics of multilateral relations has changed fundamentally, making groupings like the Commonwealth untenable in the current fluid geopolitical dispensation. Moreover, regional bodies that these Commonwealth countries belong to have come of age and are filling various development gaps that the UK could have been addressing.

While the Commonwealth accounted for 9.1 per cent of the UK’s total trade in 2019, trade with five Commonwealth countries—Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa—accounted for 72 per cent of this figure. But with a vast amount of wealth that the country feels beholden to from its former colonies, the UK is hard pressed to let go, even as the Commonwealth’s sell-by-date has already expired.

The Commonwealth has baggage many of its member countries would like to drop. It reminds them of a dark past when the British colonialists ran roughshod over their basic human rights and exploited their lands for a pittance. Unlike the French who made attempts at assimilating their subjects during colonialism, the British are accused of being racist, particularly in Africa where they are accused of committing atrocities. This is the kind of historical baggage that Commonwealth members would like to forget in order to make a clean break from the past.

The British monarchy is also a shadow of its all-encompassing global power. Its place has been taken over by the US and the EU. It is instructive that the UK has been fighting for its survival as informed by Brexit—its spirited fight to withdraw from the EU. The UK has had a good run for a couple of centuries. But all good things must come to an end.

— The writer comments on international affairs

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