International trade is firmly on the agenda as the group of 53 disparate nations meet in London
Any 80-year-old institution based on the contours of a defunct 19th-century empire and largely held together by the charming drive of a 91-year-old woman is going to struggle to prove its modern relevance. Described once in the New Statesman by James Fenton as “one of the world’s least obnoxious institutions”, the Commonwealth can probably only ever aspire to faint praise. In an already overcrowded schedule of diplomatic summits, this is often seen as the “zombie summit”, a biennial gathering of whimsy that refuses to die.
Not surprisingly, the task of finding a thematic rationale for a Commonwealth summit of 53 nations, the first to be held in the UK since 1997, is not simple. The 70-strong Cabinet Office unit who planned the summit’s welcome chose the theme of our common future, and of welcome. Unfortunately, a sequence of decisions taken by the UK Border Force and former home secretary Theresa May on Commonwealth citizens up to five years earlier meant the headlines in the run-up to the summit were chiefly about rejection. The true motive of the British prime minister, it seemed, had been to a create a hostile environment for Commonwealth citizens, and to remove what they had assumed were unchallengeable rights. As PR disasters go, they rarely come much worse. Her Majesty was probably not amused.