Let's refasten the ties that bind

Artists for Brexit bring you a fascinating commentary on the cultural and economic loss suffered as a result of our drift from the Commonwealth. A remarkable piece by author and journalist, Peter Mason.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

One of the saddest consequences of our relentless march towards political integration with Europe has been that the closer we've become to the continent the further we’ve moved away from the Commonwealth.

When compared with the madness of how we gradually delivered control of our country into the hands of unelected technocrats and bankers, the historical weakening of Britain’s ties to the 53 Commonwealth countries might appear to have been a side issue. In some ways it has been. But it has nonetheless represented a significant economic and cultural loss – one that will be difficult to reverse, even if we leave the European Union sometime soon.

Our creeping estrangement from the Commonwealth dates back to the day the British government joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Under the terms of our membership of the common market, bilateral agreements between Britain and Commonwealth countries essentially had to be scrapped - with huge consequences. In 1970, for instance, Britain took 36% of all New Zealand’s exports, but by 2007 that was down to 5%. That’s a mutually beneficial trade relationship ended in the blinking of an eye – and to what benefit? Certainly none to New Zealand, which suffered for many years as a consequence, and not much, if at all, to Britain.

Holi festival, India

There were similar earth-shattering changes across the entire Commonwealth, including in the Caribbean sugar industry, yet the long-term pluses of such a dramatic trade shake-up remain difficult to uncover. Were we struggling to sell or source goods before we joined the EEC? Admittedly the Commonwealth wasn’t quite the dynamic entity then that it is today. Greater access to the European market must also have seemed a tantalising prospect. But essentially we swapped one market for another, to no great gain. Worse still, we began to tie ourselves into the all-encompassing, anti-democratic European project.

As a long-term economic move, then, our shift towards greater trade with Europe doesn’t look to have been very smart at all. Was it really worth dramatically reducing our interaction with a group of countries that now has a combined population of 2.2 billion and GDP of £6.9 trillion? In the process of ‘winning’ ourselves special relationships with perennially unsettled economies in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and in more recent times, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, we have severely disadvantaged our trade relationships with big beasts such as India, South Africa, Australia and Canada - even Malaysia and Singapore. The Commonwealth covers nearly a quarter of the world's land mass, and now accounts for 16 per cent of world GDP. The International Monetary Fund believes the Euro-zone's share of GDP could shrink to a little as 12 per cent over the next few years.

Night view of Kingston, Jamaica

The EU is moribund, with an ageing and shrinking population, in long term economic decline. By contrast the Commonwealth is young and growing, with huge potential. What’s more, it has a great mix of markets – in developed, emerging and developing economies – and a mix of natural resources. So strong is the lure of the Commonwealth, in fact, that despite our binding ties to Europe, the share of UK exports to Commonwealth countries has been increasing over the past decade, while the EU’s share has been falling. Nonetheless, Britain only exports £54 billion of goods to the Commonwealth - less than a quarter of its European trade.

Other countries would die for the traditional links we have with the bloc of countries that constitutes the Commonwealth. We have the inside track, based on a historical relationship with its members that - notwithstanding the old tensions of empire - has generally remained friendly and cooperative. Economists have suggested that due to the ‘commonalities’ of language, law and business practice across Commonwealth countries, the costs of each country trading with the other is typically 10-15 per cent lower than when dealing with other nations. Increasingly it has become clear that we’ve been running with the wrong pack.

Toronto, Canada

On the economic front, therefore, there’s plenty to suggest that in Britain we’d have been better off continuing our relationship with the Commonwealth than continuing to throw our lot in with what has become a dysfunctional, crisis-ridden European state. It’s been a costly mistake. But there are other reasons to regret the drifting away from our Commonwealth partners, and they lie mostly in the cultural realm.

Of course cultural adjustments can take a while to reveal themselves, and, standing here, at this point in time, it is difficult to discern the possible long-term cultural ramifications of our closer union with continental Europe. There are bound to be positive impacts in some areas, and it will be interesting, for instance, to see what effect the mass immigration of Polish people has on the way we see and do things in this country. But in general the post-war influence of the European project has represented a taking away from our culture, whereas the Commonwealth represented an addition. Our more relaxed relationship with the Commonwealth allowed us to absorb its influences and transmogrify them into something subtly new and different. The European Union has been far more prescriptive, and has not afforded us that luxury.

Aerial view, Singapore

Have our closer ties with Europe positively influenced what we hear on the street, in the way that, say, Jamaica, Nigeria, or India have done? How have European sensibilities got into our language? Where is the nascent equivalent of Notting Hill Carnival? While the Commonwealth has traditionally offered us something we can add to the exciting cultural life we have in Britain, the European Union has done little more than dampen it down with coffee and croissants. While the Commonwealth has helped us to become a more diverse nation, if anything the EU has pushed us towards monocultural conformity - and not just by directive. This is not to say that the people of the countries of mainland Europe have no culture – that would be absurd. But due to the nature of the European project the way the Union has engaged with us has been different.

Back in the 1970s, the great black nationalist (and former West Indies cricketer) Learie Constantine warned in a speech to the House of Lords that Britain’s membership of the EEC would eclipse not only its trade with the Commonwealth but would represent a wholesale ditching of the reciprocally beneficial cultural links between Britain and its former empire. Despite acknowledging the considerable downside of the colonial era, he felt there was much that ought to be preserved. And he was right. What Constantine saw was that in the Commonwealth there are deep reserves of understanding and common sensibility – as well as differences - that don't really exist within Europe. It is this dynamic combination of similarity and discord that makes the Commonwealth such a productive entity.

Cape Town, South Africa

The irony of ever-closer relations with Europe is that we have ditched countries that have traditionally been our allies in favour of many who have often been our enemies. People in the Commonwealth fought in two European-based world wars on the side of Britain, only to find that once the peace had been won, we preferred to consort with our former foes rather than with our long-term friends.

Of course it is only right that we have pursued friendly relations with countries on the continent. But we should never have fallen into the artificial trap of dealing with Europe at the expense of the Commonwealth. We can nurture relationships with both. Out of the EU, but with a negotiated free trade agreement with its members, we would be free to deal with who we like, when we like, and to turn our attention back to fostering better economic and cultural relations with the people of countries with whom we share a valuable and special affinity.

Flamingos, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

We can’t overlook the fact that our infatuation with Europe has rightly stoked up some resentment in the rest of the Commonwealth. In some senses the other nations have moved on without us. As a consequence of our headlong lurch into the arms of Brussels we’ve already come close to throwing away much of what is best about our membership of the Commonwealth. But it’s not too late to retrieve the situation.

Peter Mason is a journalist and author. His books include Jamaica in Focus, Bacchanal! The Carnival Culture of Trinidad and a biography of Learie Constantine.