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Book review
Charting the Fate of the Commonwealth
PR Chari
Research Professor, IPCS
email: prchari@gmail.com


The Commonwealth and International Affairs: The Round Table Centennial Selection
Alex May [Ed.]
Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2010
Pages: ix + 170
Price: Unstated
 

This volume excerpts passages to bring forth the essence of the best papers published in The Round Table, an academic journal devoted to Commonwealth and International Affairs, over a hundred-year period. It was started in 1910, and is the oldest journal in the world exclusively devoted to these issues. I must confess to a great sense of wonder as to how this selection was made from out of the articles published over the 100 years that the journal has been in existence. Was it on the basis of the significance of the article at the time when it was published? Or, the influence that the article has had on subsequent thinking? Or, the reputation of the author—known or suspected? Several newspapers in India are more than a hundred years old, and some journals like the Economic and Political Weekly are more than fifty years of age. How would they select the most significant articles published by them for incorporation in one volume? 

The editor, Alex May, is the Research Editor, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a project of the University of Oxford, and has been Honorary Secretary/Treasurer of the Round Table since 1997. He is, therefore, uniquely qualified to undertake this onerous task. He has organized the excerpts over the 1910-2010 period into six segments: 1910-14 (pre-empire); 1914-23 (First World War and immediate aftermath); 1921-39 (inter-war empire and Commonwealth); 1939-49 (Second World War and its aftermath); 1949-65 (decolonization era); and 1965-10 (modern Commonwealth). The editor’s classification possesses an inner logic and makes eminent good sense. It also permits these excerpts to be consulted if the Round Table’s views are sought on some seminal event that has occurred over the last hundred years like Versailles or the Suez crisis or the Iraq war. 

The frequent use of the words ‘empire’ and ‘Commonwealth’ in this classification of excerpts is apparent, which derives from the history of the Round Table.  Its origins are traced back to “the talented and impressionable young Oxford graduates recruited by Lord Milner and his successor Lord Selborne to help in the administration of the conquered territories of South Africa.” It would be recollected that South Africa came into the possession of the British after the brutal Boer War in 1899-1902. Named the ‘Kindergarten Group’, they unequivocally stood for empire; they took the name Round Table, and it was, in truth, a movement designed to sustain a kind of ‘super-state’ with primacy being accorded to Britain. This was also the name given by them to the journal started in 1910 to serve their objectives. Later, following Britain’s decline during the inter- World War period and the subsequent decolonization process, the ‘super-state’ concept metamorphosed into the ‘Commonwealth’ to achieve the same objectives of maintaining British primacy in a comity of nations pursuing common values like adherence to democracy, a liberal economic regime, respect for human rights and so on. Still later, Britain became devoted to avoiding entanglements with Europe and to pursuing an Anglo-American alliance; ideas which also permeated the Commonwealth. The establishment of its Secretariat in 1966 consolidated the institutionalization of the Commonwealth.  The Round Table comments on all these changes, while recording the epochal transitions that have occurred within the international system over the years.

Like other academic journals the Round Table has its idiosyncrasies. Four are noteworthy. First, articles in the journal remained anonymous till 1966. Much can be argued in favour of or against this modality, but the editor believes that it permitted the Round Table to be the vehicle for persons in authority to air their views, elicit support and shape the public debate. Second, this modality also explains the journal’s extraordinary influence. It was reputed to be an authoritative source for both news and analysis, and was extensively quoted in Parliament, newspapers and by other newspapers. Third, the journal succeeded in converting itself very smoothly from being the spokesman of empire to becoming a votary of the Commonwealth. Fourth, there was a brief hiatus in 1982 when the Round Table did not appear, but it resumed publication in 1983 under the editorship of Peter Lyon. In its new avatar the journal has devoted itself more fervently to both Commonwealth and International affairs, but it also serves as the commentariat on the Secretariat. A greater association of academics has been ensured, which has reflected in a preponderance of scholarly articles in the journal.

A very rich fare is provided in these excerpts that offer a fascinating insight into the concerns of their times, and how it was believed they could be addressed.  Space considerations permit only two of these excerpts to be noticed.

The first excerpt is from an article published in September 1947 entitled “Valediction to India: The Last phase of the British Raj,” by HV Hodson. It highlights the speed with which the ultimate transfer of power was effected—announcement of intent in February 1946, establishment of Interim Government in June 1946, and Independence in August 1947. Hodson reflects on the irony that the British had unified India over their two centuries and more of colonial rule; they also presided over its partition in 1947. He also believed that the best chance for India and Pakistan was to set up common institutions for joint administration since the two countries were not truly foreign states as such. Of course, this fond belief has been completely belied by the course of subsequent history.

The second excerpt is from the concluding article published in February 2010 by Richard Bourne, “The Round Table at 100, in a Changing Commonwealth Context.” He weighs the assets and defects of the Commonwealth. Its greatest assets are the common use of the English language—a huge advantage in the present-day world. It serves as the spokesman of weak and poor states, and uses ‘soft power’ as its instrumentality. Its problems are only too apparent. Too great a burden is being placed on the Secretary General without providing him the resources to meet the demands made upon him. The Commonwealth has also exhibited its inability to address the problems of internal conflict within its fold like the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Bourne then reaches the unexceptional conclusion that, unless the Commonwealth addresses these weaknesses and problems, it would soon become irrelevant.

In truth, the irrelevance of the Commonwealth is a common refrain among its critics. What they do not appreciate is that the Commonwealth is a club of nations. What they make of this club for good or bad depends on the members. For instance, the potential of the Commonwealth for enabling good governance or conflict prevention or consensual decision-making has hardly been explored by its members.  If the members do not contribute their mite to the success of the Commonwealth, they have only themselves to blame for its failings. I am, however, quite reassured about the relevance and longevity of the Commonwealth. Its institutions remain strong and vibrant like its scholarship schemes for students and technical personnel in British centers of higher learning. The Commonwealth Games that India is currently struggling to hold without untoward incident is yet another bond. All these institutions create and sustain their own bureaucracies, and no bureaucracy has ever disbanded itself. For this cynical reason alone, the future of the Commonwealth is quite secure. 

 
 
 

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