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Globe editorial: With Brexit looming, Britain suddenly remembers the Commonwealth

It’s an odd thing: People seem to be taking an interest in the Commonwealth lately. Columnists and senior politicians are mentioning it in a way that is more than just perfunctory. Something must be up.

In fact, though it’s normally regarded by even its key members as a dusty, post-imperial anachronism, the bloc of 53 mostly former British colonies (plus newcomers like Rwanda) is having a bit of a geopolitical moment.

The burst of attention goes beyond the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London this week. No, interest in the Commonwealth has been revived almost singlehandedly by Brexit. Parts of the British right, including trade secretary Liam Fox, have convinced themselves that free exchange with former subject nations could make up for the vast loss of trade entailed by the country’s departure from the European Union.

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It’s a funny thing, however: These Tory visionaries seem most enamoured of ex-Dominions where white people predominate. There’s even a silly name – Canzuk – for this bloc-within-a-bloc made up of the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Even if the ambit of this vision is broadened to include populous countries like Nigeria and India, most sensible people acknowledge that replacing Europe with the Commonwealth is a fantasy. Despite a collective population of 2.4 billion and a GDP upwards of $13-trillion, the group has nowhere near the latent appetite for trade with Britain that would make the scheme credible.

India, with its billion-plus people, is still trade-shy. Australia is focused on China, not to mention located halfway around the world. As for Canada, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has rightly kiboshed any notion that we will make trade policy based on sentimental ties to the former metropole.

Quite apart from its feasibility, the dream of a strengthened Commonwealth smacks of opportunism. With Britain increasingly isolated on the world stage, the Tories have decided that the bonds of language and common law make an excellent basis for closer trade ties. Never mind that the country’s main political parties had been losing interest in the union for years, until Brexit came along.

Former Dominions like Canada have no business being affronted by this realpolitik. The same can’t be said for countries with a harsher and more recent colonial history. Nor has Britain done anything of late to reassure Commonwealth partners like Jamaica and Pakistan of its constancy.

In fact, Westminster has been consumed for weeks by the so-called Windrush scandal, which centres on the government’s mistreatment of elderly Commonwealth immigrants brought to Britain by their parents in the postwar period.

The country needed labourers and assured the new arrivals they could stay indefinitely, then changed the rules to require them to have documentation they had never thought to acquire.

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Now aged West Indian men and women, resident in the U.K. for decades, are being detained, losing their healthcare and getting turfed from their homes. It has served as a potent symbol of Britain’s attitude toward its ex-colonies.

That’s not to say the Commonwealth today is some kind of Empire 2.0. Membership in the bloc is voluntary.

But the air of neo-colonialism that surrounds the group isn’t completely illusory, either. Not only did the Commonwealth emerge directly from the British Empire, it is still headed by Queen Elizabeth II, who seems to enjoy the role a little too much.

The next chance for the bloc to switch tack away from its legacy of colonial racism and fickle engagement will be in choosing a new leader when the Queen dies. Her Majesty has requested that her son, Prince Charles, get the job.

That would be a missed opportunity. A similar organization, the International Organization of La Francophonie, has had dynamic and diverse leaders, including its current head, the Haitian-Canadian Michaelle Jean, our former governor-general.

To signal that the Commonwealth is no longer an imperial holdover, it could follow suit. In fact, it occurs to us that the Queen will soon have a granddaughter-in-law who might fit the bill.

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Alas, at press time, the British media were reporting that the Queen had gotten her wish, and that Charles will succeed her. Not a surprise, perhaps. Old empires die hard.

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