It was the year 1931 when the imperial Westminster Parliament enacted the Statute of Westminster, granting equality to all self-governing dominions within the British Empire. This meant that all dominion parliaments became equal to the Westminster Parliament, that Westminster could not normally make laws for the dominions and that the monarch was the sovereign of the dominions by right, not by association with the United Kingdom. Henceforth, King George V was as much king of the United Kingdom as he was the king of Canada, or Australia or South Africa. This act, adopted at the height of the British Empire, showed the evolution of the largest empire the world had ever seen from a strong centralised state to a confederation of sorts.
The spirit of the Statute of Westminster later developed the Common-wealth of Nations, which still exists as a major force in the world. The Commonwealth evolved naturally out of the British Empire as colonies gained independence but retained strong ties with Britain. After all, decades, or even centuries, of British rule had infused a number of common values, traditions and ways of living in the people of the erstwhile empire. One of the ways in which the British Empire was different was that it unravelled without any major animosities between the emerging independent country and the imperial centre. The British had introduced limited self-government in almost all the colonies and these structures then became the basis of the new countries. In our own region, Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru were all products of the British system of schooling, thinking and governance. It was the British understanding of rights, self-rule and independence which energised the politics of both Jinnah and Nehru.
It is a little admitted fact nowadays that Pakistan also emerged as a dominion on August 15, 1947. On that day, full self-government was granted, but King George VI still remained the King of Pakistan, the sterling was still the benchmark for the rupee and our external defence was still coordinated with the Commonwealth. Therefore, while Pakistan was technically independent, it still could call on the expertise of Britain and other Commonwealth countries to help the fledging country. Indeed, Jinnah and Liaquat Ali themselves requested scores of British civil servants, military personnel and technicians to continue in critical positions in Pakistan so that the state machinery could function. It would not be wrong to say that if the British had indeed packed up and left on August 15, 1947, Pakistan would have literally fallen apart. During Pakistan’s early days especially and throughout its existence, the Commonwealth has been a stabilising and encouraging factor.
However, we rarely hear about the role of the Commonwealth in Pakistan. Even the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting gets an inside mention in our newspapers. Why so? One of the reasons behind this low public profile is that a lot of the work of the Commonwealth is done behind the scenes and without much fuss. People might have heard of Commonwealth Scholarships, or the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation, but these are just two of the numerous initiatives of this 54-member organisation. A majority of the initiatives of the Commonwealth are focused on capacity building and hence do not have immediate tangible results. For example, the Commonwealth focuses a lot on the preservation and promotion of democracy and human rights through its election monitoring missions and the gradual development of policy and laws which further equality, especially gender equality, and respect for human rights. Just as the 1931 Statute took a long-term view, the current Commonwealth also focuses on long-lasting development.
The Commonwealth is also peculiar in that it is very informal. Its decisions are taken in an informal atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance — there is no winner or loser or master. It is the only world organisation that is just like a family, with Her Majesty the Queen as the ‘Head of the Commonwealth,’ (with the consent of all members).
At a time when Pakistan is again at the crossroads, like in 1947, perhaps we need to re-evaluate and reformulate our relationship with people we are so closely tied with.
(To be continued)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2011.
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