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The enduring Commonwealth

The rise and fall (and rise?) of the Commonwealth club

Business Lunch Special — Mutton Bone Curry, 14 Ringgit.

So proclaims the Facebook page of the Royal Commonwealth Society of Malaysia, in between a post celebrating the coronation and a tasteful greyscale picture of Her Late Majesty. RCS Malaysia sits some fifteen minutes from central Kuala Lumpur, based in the leafy Damansara Heights. Amidst palm trees and upmarket residential properties, its clubhouse is a curious mix of British and Malay, decorated in equal measure by Chinese lanterns and Diamond Jubilee bunting.

The Institute housed over 11,000 items of ethnographic interest

Decades ago, this was a single node in a global network of Commonwealth clubs, stretching from the imperial loyalist associations of Australia to the business clubs of Hong Kong. Today, Kuala Lumpur and its promise of a £2.50 mutton bone curry stands alone.

The centre of that network, the “physical Commonwealth”, was London. As debt-ridden Britain struggled to sustain its costly empire, the decision was made to transform rebellious colonies into global partners. The old dominions were gathered together with newly independent India, Pakistan and Ceylon to form the modern Commonwealth of Nations in 1949.

This new Commonwealth sought to uphold the highest virtues of 20th century Britain — respect for national sovereignty, commitment to open international waters, institutional stability — without the colonial infrastructure. It gave new nations, who shared political and legal cultures, use of the English language along with many of the same institutions as a forum in which to gather as equals. Britain and its new post-colonial partners represented something different, tethered neither to Soviet communism nor Euro-American liberalism.

What was to be done with London’s colonial clubs and the vast wealth of imperial scholarship at its universities? Across the city, “imperial” became “commonwealth”, and colonial paternalism was replaced with fraternal celebration.

Founded in 1868 as the Colonial Society, the Royal Commonwealth Society rebranded in 1958. Based at an impressive clubhouse on Northumberland Avenue, its library played host to over 300,000 printed items and over 120,000 photographs. It was, by some accounts, the single most comprehensive source for imperial and commonwealth history.

At the other end of St. James’s sat the Royal Over-Seas League, with its elegant dining room, carefully tended garden and Commonwealth flag displayed proudly above the portico. Some twenty minutes north on the Piccadilly line was the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, based at the School of Advanced Study, the centre of global Commonwealth scholarship. Marlborough House — a Georgian mansion designed by Wren for a distant ancestor of Churchill — was leased to the Secretariat in 1965.

The jewel in the crown was the Commonwealth Institute, an educational and cultural charity housed in a striking copper-roofed convention centre on Kensington High Street. The Institute housed over 11,000 items of ethnographic interest, lovingly curated to provide visitors with a series of exhibits showcasing life in each of the Commonwealth’s member states.

These spaces enabled like-minded people to mix and to celebrate Britain’s national identity within a new international context. They played host to international businessmen, a generation of post-colonial scholars who felt an affinity for the Mother Country and visiting Commonwealth dignitaries. The trappings of Empire gave way to an atmosphere of familial fondness, a tandem celebration of national sovereignty and cultural exchange. It was through these Commonwealth clubs that world art and world music came to London, often for the first time.

Then came the decline.

Catalysed by political alignment with Europe and gross mismanagement, one by one, these spaces fell into disrepair. Years of ignorance — Thatcherite acrimony, Blairite Europhilia — saw these institutions lie moribund, just as the Commonwealth slipped further and further from mainstream political relevance.

So, too, in the physical spaces. The flags faded, the brass was tarnished and the doors were closed.

Floods, fires and under-resourcing saw the RCS Clubhouse fall into disrepair throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Society took to selling library books in order to supplement its income. Its immense collection of some 300,000 items, which had not received proper archivist attention for years, was moved up to Cambridge University in 1993. The Commonwealth Clubhouse limped on until 2013, when 25 Northumberland Avenue was finally sold.

Little now remains of that post-war heyday

The Commonwealth Institute suffered a similar fate. It was stung with renovation costs of £312,000 in 1982, which rose to £5 million by 1988. Strapped for cash, it too took to selling off its precious assets and hiring out its events’ spaces to the highest bidder. The final nail in the coffin was the withdrawal of Government funding in 1999. By 2003, the Institute was no more; today, its building hosts a graphic design museum. Its immense collection was donated to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, which itself closed in 2009.

Little now remains of that post-war heyday. The Secretariat is mostly inaccessible to the public, an impenetrable black box squirrelled away in the most glorious Georgian Mansion. The Royal Over-Seas League has managed to sustain its grand clubhouse only by broadening its focus beyond the Commonwealth. Its next dinner guest is the Ambassador of Peru.

Perhaps most scandalous is the sorry fate of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies. ICWS most recently hit headlines when its former director, the obnoxious Professor Philip Murphy, took to the Guardian to tell “Brexiters” that “banking on the Commonwealth is a joke.

Yet all is not lost. Whisper it, but Britain’s Commonwealth identity — and the accompanying infrastructure — may be due for a revival.

Post-Brexit Britain is a nation unsure of what it is and what it stands for. Having rejected its place in the European civilisational superstructure, it is slowly rediscovering its centuries-old links to the wider world. New post-Brexit deals with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and — possibly — India herald a reinvigorated interest in the Commonwealth.

At the same time, geopolitical winds are blowing in the Commonwealth’s favour. Caught between Brussels, Washington and Beijing, its members are increasingly attracted to a voluntary association which champions free commerce, national sovereignty and geopolitical stability. In 2018, Nigeria’s President Buhari called for the bloc’s members to “lend weight” to one another in international diplomatic forums. In 2021, newly oil-rich Guyana approached the Commonwealth Secretariat for help in setting up its sovereign wealth fund. In 2022, the club gained two new members, Togo and Gabon, a signal to the world that the organisation still carries weight.

Almost in tandem, green shoots of the physical Commonwealth are re-emerging in London. The Institute for Commonwealth Studies has quietly removed Professor Murphy, replacing him with Kingsley Abbott, a mild-mannered and competent Auckland lawyer. During the King’s Coronation, the flags of all fifty-six Commonwealth member states were erected along Horse Guards Road — and have yet to come down.

Perhaps most exciting is the prospect of a new Commonwealth Cultural Quarter in East London. Whilst this development is in its early stages, there is serious talk of a new space near Maritime Greenwich, set to play host to the kind of vibrant cultural and social life that the Commonwealth Institute once provided.

It remains to be seen whether Britain will embrace its modern Commonwealth identity. Rishi Sunak has expressed little interest in foreign policy, even less in the existential question of Britain’s self-conception. What’s sure is that it will only endure through the tangibility and permanence of a physical presence, spaces where the Commonwealth’s loudest and proudest advocates can mix and mingle.

Then maybe, just maybe, Londoners will be able to sit down for a cheap Malaysian mutton bone curry without having to fly 6,500 miles for the privilege.

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