The Commonwealth: A Common Culture?

By Richard Maltby; Peter Quartermaine | Go to book overview

Introduction

In an interview on the BBC Radio ‘Today’ programme for 14 March 1988 (Commonwealth Day), Professor Ramphal commented that ‘there are people who will like the Commonwealth less and less as it looks less and less like empire’. The post-colonial Commonwealth can no longer be seen as being unequally ‘united’ by the historical legacy of empire, and the basis of any new-found consensus must be agreed, not simply assumed. Any unconsidered belief in the cultural unity of the Commonwealth, especially one emanating from Britain, requires particularly careful scrutiny, for the former centre of the empire is now neither assured of, nor entitled to, any centrality in a Commonwealth of diversity and equality.

If what was once seen as the centre no longer holds, does all notion of a common culture fall, or do shared political and cultural beliefs still remain? ‘Culture’ here embraces politico-economic, as well as artisticcreative, forces; the British Imperial institutions that Commonwealth countries have experienced range from Viceroys to ‘The Vicar of Bray’.

The reformulation of Britain’s role within the Commonwealth is, therefore, crucial to any sense of the Commonwealth’s cultural community. In what sense, if any, is it true (as Mrs. Thatcher claimed in 1987 to Commonwealth Heads of Government in Vancouver) that a Commonwealth without Britain would be a contradiction in terms? Professor Ramphal sees this post-imperial process as causing more heartsearching in Britain than elsewhere, but as of equal consequence to all Commonwealth countries, since the legacy of British cultural authority (however regarded) is their one shared point of contact. The reconstruction of British culture, from colonization to cricket (always most political of games, as C.L.R. James and Mike Gatting have both demonstrated, the former with considerably more eloquence and tact), affects all involved. This is equally so for those British citizens of Commonwealth origin who today live uneasily in what their grandparents could (from afar) revere as the Mother Country, as for those Commonwealth citizens whose acceptance of the Commonwealth as a viable political institution is partly determined by the wish to continue

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