The Empire strikes back

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Reviving the Commonwealth will not compensate for leaving the EU


As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, the glorious memory of ‘Empire’ is back. You know, the one where the sun never set?

The Brexiteers’ pro-Empire narrative is simple. Freed of the ‘shackles’ of the EU, Britain becomes a standalone, autonomous superpower, especially in trade. No more listening to instructions from Brussels; no more following stringent EU rules and regulations.

Just London and the Commonwealth: a love affair.

Ah, the Commonwealth. Ministers in London wax lyrical about shared values, a common language, familiar institutions and similar legal and regulatory systems across the 52 member countries. An estimated 2.4 billion people looking back with great fondness at a time when Britain was the undisputed leader. Those were the days.

Only it didn’t quite happen that way. 13 March may have been Commonwealth Day and Brexit Britain may be basking in the golden glow of nostalgic nationalism. But for many of the Empire’s former citizens, the past wasn’t pretty.

Just ask Shashi Tharoor, an Indian Member of Parliament, author of ‘Inglorious Empire’ and former United Nations under-secretary-general.

He noted recently: “There’s no real awareness of the atrocities, of the fact that Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of Empire, the fact that Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.”

“Why are some already branding British plans for stronger ties with the Commonwealth as ‘Empire 2.0’?”

The new post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ is going to be different. Once Article 50 is triggered and the Brexit divorce procedures start in earnest, Britain will be dealing with Commonwealth members as equals.

So why are some already branding British plans for stronger ties – including free trade agreements – with the Commonwealth as ‘Empire 2.0’?

To be fair, London is moving fast to consolidate hitherto fragile ties with the Commonwealth. The bloc’s trade, industry and investment ministers met in London last week to endorse an ambitious ‘Agenda for Growth’. A Commonwealth summit will be held just before Britain is expected to formally leave the EU in March 2019 with the aim of revitalising and re-energising the Commonwealth.

Trade is expected to be the centerpiece of the relationship, with London looking to its former Empire to replace lucrative EU markets it will lose after Brexit.

As US President Donald Trump thumbs his nose at free trade and fears of protectionism stalk the world, any effort to liberalise global trade is good news. Engaging with emerging markets is important.

But let’s lay to rest the Empire 2.0 myth that Commonwealth governments are desperate to clinch trade pacts with London. Or indeed that Britain will find it easier, simpler, smoother to negotiate free trade agreements with its Commonwealth friends than the EU does.

It just isn’t that simple. Shashi Tharoor is probably right: Britain’s offer of a free trade deal with India is more likely to go down like “a lead balloon”.

“Nostalgia about the Empire and the Commonwealth makes for good films and excellent television”

Trade negotiations are complicated affairs. Australia, New Zealand and India are focused on negotiating free trade pacts with the EU and can’t embark on formal talks with Britain until it has left the EU.

Many of the obstacles that have arisen in the EU’s trade talks with, say, India (which, among other things, wants easier rules on temporary migration of workers), are also likely to emerge in Britain’s trade negotiations.

Some African countries are tempted by trade agreements with Britain because the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) are proving so complicated to negotiate. But as the largest market in the world, the EU will continue to be important for African states.

It’s also worth noting that Britain sells more goods and services to the EU than it does to the Commonwealth. Once Britain leaves the EU, goods from many Asian and African countries will be subject to higher tariffs on the UK market.

Nostalgia about the Empire and the Commonwealth makes for good films and excellent television. But a walk down memory lane is no way to conduct business in the 21st century. Reviving the Commonwealth will not compensate for leaving the EU.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo