Schoolchildren were once taught that we had built an Empire upon which the sun never set. The world was so simple back then. Now we have to consider complicated things like rights and tariffs and balances of responsibility.
Empire’s legacy is not one of triumph, and it’s to our shame that we continue to draw a khaki curtain over our role in messing up the Middle East, unable or unwilling to shoulder the responsibility for our actions. The Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration are not ancient history, nor was decolonisation.
First published in The National, 16 August 2018
But it was only a matter of time before the Brexiteers made it clear that they’d been keeping the Commonwealth in their back pocket, like some kind of trump card.
In the pursuit of a vision for the future, those advocating Brexit have not looked to the past for inspiration, but instead suffer from delusions of resurrecting it. The dreams of a worldwide trading network built upon the Commonwealth (synonymous with “Empire” for many, let’s be honest) is one that holds the attention of those who see the world through the grainy black-and-white images of a 1940s British Pathé news report. For them, The Empire Strikes Back is a promise, not part of the Lucas filmography.
But let us briefly put to one side the dubious morality of trying to live off the benefits we could derive from having once conquered and subjugated large parts of the world, and look to what could be achieved practically. I want to know how, in the modern age, any such arrangement could work. It is in no way clear what such an arrangement would look like. Will the nations of the Commonwealth open their borders to us? What would such arrangements look like? Will they involve the harmonisation of regulation?
I ask these out of genuine curiosity. For example, on my last point, if we were to try to create some sort of regulatory framework across the Commonwealth to reduce barriers to trade, it is worth remembering that many members have far lower worker protections and environmental standards than we currently enjoy. Does that mean we will be reducing our standards? Since we will be desperate for a deal it would suggest they get to set the agenda. Australia has already said as much regarding hormone-reared beef.
Equally, will freedom of movement throughout the Commonwealth, or at the very least preferential status for visas, be discussed? If so, how does this fit with the “close the borders, raise the drawbridge” mentality of the Leave campaign?
It seems highly unlikely that the rest of the former British Empire would be interested in such a set of arrangements unless serious concessions were made. It is a forlorn hope that we can simply turn back the clock and resurrect the now long-defunct “Empire Marketing Board” which encouraged trade between the dominions of the British Empire. Indeed, it is worth remembering that some Commonwealth countries have already challenged the UK in the World Trade Organisation.
In short such arrangements are simply not possible in the post-colonial age, nor are they desirable. The EU is the largest trading block in the world. In contrast, the Commonwealth comprises around 50 smaller and distinct economies scattered around the globe.
We should not forget the past but must also look to why the EU was created for our inspiration. As an MEP I hope to continue to represent you in a parliament containing representatives from the opposing sides of those horrendous conflicts.
After the destruction of the First and Second World Wars, conflicts driven by the dream of empire, the EU has brought the nations of Europe together.
Whatever the future for Scotland, we must remember our past, not daydream of returning to it.