Different from what it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the modern Commonwealth of Nations is largely a product of two conflicting forces about the future of the empire. One was on increasing decision-making powers in the various parts of the empire or dominions.
Former Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher lamented; “I have had no say whatever about imperial policy,” and asserted that “there must be some change.” The other force was the desire to instill, particularly in children, the importance and goodness of the empire.
As of 1904, Empire Day started in England “to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among empire citizens” and to be proud children of “such a glorious empire.”
Empire Day evolved into Commonwealth Day in 1958, still stressing sentimental oneness and allegiance to the English monarch. As of 1977, the Day was fixed to be in the second Monday of March.
The Commonwealth Day has sentimental value and is symbolic of continuing conflicting ideals; desired autonomy within and feelings of unity in the remnants of conceptual British Empire.
With the territorial empire gone, the feeling of Commonwealth unity is constantly under threat. For many, the challenge is how to celebrate Commonwealth Day without being English in an English setting.
The Commonwealth currently contains more than previous British imperial subjects. The base is the mixing of white English colonisers and their colonised ‘natives’ coming together to claim to be Commonwealth citizens.
While some former British colonies, like Burma, Israel, Egypt, Sudan and Jordan stayed out of that arrangement, others that were not British colonies chose to join because the Commonwealth developed some magnetic pull that in post-colonial times attracted such countries as Rwanda and Mozambique although they were not English colonised.
The Commonwealth, therefore, is not any longer an assemblage of white dominions trying to figure out how to maintain their Englishness and still acquire autonomy in matters of defence and foreign policy. Besides Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, other prospective dominions were Southern Rhodesia and Kenya where white settlers were in big numbers. They all celebrated ‘Empire Day’ as their right to rule the world and make ‘natives’ to go along.
As members celebrated Commonwealth Day yesterday, many questions linger on the value of the Commonwealth. It is different in that it seemingly lacks thrill. Queen Elizabeth, having delegated her function to Prince Charles, was missing. There are divisions along religious and racial lines that afflict the roughly 2.4 billion people in 54 countries.
Patricia Scotland, the current Secretary-General, is on the way out, opening an avenue for Kenya to propose Monica Juma. The problem was that Juma spoiled Kenya’s celebratory mood by withdrawing her candidature in unclear circumstances.
Prof Munene teaches History at the United States International University-Africa