Freedom Debate: Commonwealth The Legacy of Empire

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Chaired by Australian Julianne Schultz the panel that gathered to discuss the role of the Commonwealth had three panellists, from India, Ghana and Barbados who collectively brought an awe-inspiring range of talent and experience to the table. Schultz herself is a prolific author and editor of quarterly journal, the Griffith Review. The panelists included Karen Lord, a Barbadian polymath and author of multi-award-winning Redemptive in Indigo, Best of all Possible Worlds and the Galaxy Game, Margaret Busby, the legendary writer, editor and broadcaster who became Britain’s youngest and first Black woman publisher and Salil Tripathi, Indian-born human rights journalist and author, currently based in London and Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. The very existence of the Commonwealth is, of course, contentious and a ripe subject for discussion. First mooted by Scottish aristocrat Lord Rosebury in 1884 as a means of keeping ex-colonies as allies after decolonisation, the Commonwealth was created in 1926. Potential British hopes for a post-Brexit Empire 2.0 were scrutinised, as symbolised in Meghan Markle’s elaborately embroidered wedding veil. This kicked off a broad discussion of many issues; including the appropriateness of inherited succession to the post of Head of the Commonwealth, and questions of how Commonwealth countries can best work together.

The relative importance to the speakers of the Commonwealth in the past was influenced by age, national history and the process of independence creating significant variations in experience. All the speakers agreed on the importance of understanding the history of the Commonwealth in order for us all to have a better understanding of issues of past and present immigration. Tripathi’s personal relationship had been a positive one, with fond memories of growing up in India with access to the British Council, British literature and most importantly, scholarships to study in Britain. However, the audience laughed at him likening Brexit to leaving a wife for an old flame; realising too late that life has moved on without you. Economies like India’s have certainly forged ahead in the meantime, surpassing Britain’s in 2016. Busby spoke of being born in Ghana in 1944 as British citizen, under the broader citizenship laws that were in place at the time, and the effect of being introduced to a narrow range of British literature at her British school. Lord shared the story that although she was born in an independent Barbados and studied a more relevant Caribbean syllabus, it was still a surprise to hear International Finance professors at Oxford freely admit that trade policies post-Independence were certainly not set up to benefit the ex-colonies in any way.

Lord used the example of a scene in George Lamming’s classic Barbadian novel, the Castle of my Skin where the disbelief at an elderly woman claiming to have been born a slave, parallels our current amnesia around our often fractious and violent history. She briefly touched on the history of independence for Caribbean countries and Britain’s selfish motivations for swift decolonisation. It would have been fruitful to tease out further how the method of granting of independence to Caribbean nations cemented individual national identities, interests of the local ruling classes and international capital.

There was, however, much discussion of the unfairness and the devastating psychological impact of the recent Windrush debacle that finally hit the headlines in 2018, particularly by Busby. Rightly so, as we need to continue the pressure to resolve the myriad cases of Caribbean-born, legal British citizens brought to Britain as children on a British passport who have suddenly been denied citizenship or even the right to enter the country from a trip abroad. Busby was keen to emphasise that Britain needs a fuller understanding of the Commonwealth in order to recognise the contribution by immigrants to Britain from ex-colonies, from creating, expanding and supporting the national economy to the many and varied contributions to national culture. There was general agreement that the British education system is severely narrow and limited in its focus which doesn’t provide the necessary context for understanding a demand for reparations, economically or otherwise. The issue of reparations is a touchy subject, that our political leaders make a point of dodging. From Tony Blair’s refusal of an outright apology over slavery in 2007, to David Cameron sidestepping all discussions of reparations on his ‘prison debacle’ visit to Jamaica in 2015. In the absence of a richer educational curriculum, ignorance can contribute to alienation. Tripathi cited the example of the whitewashing of the fuller historical narrative, citing the recent film Dunkirk as an example of omitting the contributions of non-white soldiers from around the world in various war efforts. Lord suggested that this kind of historical ignorance often leads to blaming others for their own misfortunes or seeming lack of progress.

One of the potential benefits of cooperating with other Commonwealth countries is the ease of communication through a mutual language, but this also comes loaded with its own problems. One of the benefits of writing in English is that literature can be more easily promoted and reach a wider global audience. Tagore’s work, for example, once it was translated into English by a passionate Yeats, went global. Even the insistence on English for entrants in the Commonwealth Writers Prize, gives a huge headstart in the race to native English speakers. Issues of language and how it affects identity and the expression of one’s authentic self have been debated among Caribbean writers for years. Lord outlined the debates over the use of Standard English or national dialects in Caribbean writing, including the perception and accessibility of dialect, particularly French patois and Amerindian languages used in Guyana.

Tripathi considered the most useful role of the Commonwealth could be in the area of human rights, citing examples of times when Pakistan and Nigeria have been asked to leave over these issues. The panel agreed on the great possibilities of South-South cooperation, particularly in sharing culture to facilitate debate. I was interested in what the panel considered the most urgent but practical issues should in the huge topic of reparations, but there wasn’t time to go beyond the immediate issue of righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal. In an era of complicated trade agreements, the stranglehold of the IMF, using the Commonwealth to strengthen South-South trade is perhaps idealistic. However, with the global growth of publishing houses, perhaps the publishing industry can tentatively lead the way.

Lisa Williams

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