skip to content

SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Philip Murphy is Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. His latest book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth was published by Hurst in April. He will be speaking in the Festival of Ideas panel discussion What does a global Britain mean post-Brexit? on 23rd October, 6-7.30pm.

Q: How do you view the way the Commonwealth has been brought into the Brexit debate?
Philip Murphy: The Commonwealth was drawn into the Brexit debate in ways that ranged from the intentionally vague to the downright dishonest. It was essentially deployed by the Leave campaign as soothing mood music intended to reassure the British public that if we left the EU we would still be able to trade with our ‘Commonwealth friends’. But there was little concrete detail about how or why Brexit would actually enhance Commonwealth trade. Meanwhile, there was a highly uncharacteristic degree of unanimity among the other members of the Commonwealth in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, not least because its departure was likely to disrupt existing patterns of aid and trade. But the campaign certainly pointed to the fact that the Commonwealth was very poorly understood in the UK, and it was this which really prompted me to write The Empire’s New Clothes.

Q: What do you think the main misconceptions are regarding the Commonwealth in the UK?
PM: There are two major misconceptions. The first is that you can get something for nothing. The Commonwealth emerged from the centrifugal forces that were pulling the British Empire apart. So there’s never been a willingness to surrender any degree of autonomy to the centre in order to give the organisation some real influence or collective weight. Nor has there been any appetite to finance it properly. As a result, it doesn’t impinge on its members’ freedom of action. But by the same token, the basis of Commonwealth association is so tenuous that it barely registers on the international stage. The second misconception is that the Commonwealth is bound together by ‘Common Values’. This is really just a refurbished version of the myth that the British Empire was morally superior to all its rivals. This just doesn’t work in the modern world and it simply leads to the Commonwealth tying itself in knots trying to define what those ‘values’ are.

Q: Do we need the institution of the Commonwealth? Who does it serve?

PM: If it didn’t exist, no-one would possibly think of creating it. As I’ve said, however contemporary Commonwealth enthusiasts try to dress it up, it’s essentially a remnant of the British Empire, and it inevitably carries with it all of that historical baggage. The interesting question is, then, why its members have adhered to it for so long. And I think the basic answer is that, although it doesn’t provide very much, it promises a wide range of different things to different states, and it certainly offers enough to persuade them that leaving the organisation isn’t worth the trouble involved. Famously, of course, it offers the leaders of dozens of small and weak states an equal place at the table at a series of major international gatherings. But membership also provides a sort of ‘kite-mark’ of international legitimacy and respectability which is particularly important to those members most in need of trade and investment.

Q: Do you feel more should be taught about the history of Commonwealth countries in British schools?
PM: I guess, like a lot of historians, I hope children will gain two things from their encounter with History at school: first a basic love of the subject, so they’ll continue to take an interest in it throughout their lives, and secondly a broad frame of reference into which they can slot new information as they learn it and have some sense of where it fits in the bigger picture. To that extent, I hope they’ll learn something about Empire/Commonwealth as it forms an important aspect of both British and global history. But beyond that, I’m more interested in children being taught whatever’s most likely to excite their imaginations and give them a life-long interest in History.

Q: Do you support moves to decolonise the curriculum at universities?
PM: Put it like this: History is generally at its best when it’s being subversive and challenging; when it’s puncturing myths and asking us to view familiar events from entirely new perspectives. So if the ‘pale, male and stale’ is currently under fire, that’s OK. But if the insurgents simply establish their own orthodoxy, then they’re creating a vacancy for a new set of iconoclasts. History thrives on a constant process of questioning and reappraisal, and there isn’t a ‘right’ way to approach it.

Q: How has your book been received?
PM: There’s been an interesting mixture of reactions. I’m pleased to say that the professional scholars who’ve so far reviewed it have been very enthusiastic. The more hostile responses have tended to come from people who actually used to work in the Commonwealth Secretariat (although one former member of staff very sweetly said to me “You know, it really wasn’t as bad as everyone said.”) And the greatest hostility has come from people who don’t seem actually to have read the book, but object to the very fact that I’ve written it as director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. They clearly feel that the Institute exists to give academic legitimacy to the Commonwealth project rather than to explore its effectiveness. But as I’ve already suggested, I don’t think polishing halos is a suitable job for the historian.

Q: Do you feel the Commonwealth as an institution can be reinvented to be more relevant to today's global issues?
PM: I simply don’t think that the broad geographical category of ‘the Commonwealth’ is a relevant framework within which to tackle to most of the major problems that confront member states, including the UK itself. It’s interesting that the speeches and statements which came out of Theresa May’s trip to Africa at the end of August barely mentioned the Commonwealth, even though all three of the states she visited were members of the organisation and the British prime minister is currently its chair-in-office. The British government also took the opportunity to announce the expansion of its diplomatic representation in non-Commonwealth Africa. So although Boris Johnson’s resignation letter from the Foreign Office boasted about the success of April’s Commonwealth Summit in London, in private I don’t think Whitehall sees much immediate practical value in the organisation. One problem is that the Commonwealth has committed itself to addressing an impossibly wide range of global challenges. But when it comes to things like economic development, climate change, human rights and gender equality, it simply doesn’t have a comparative advantage. It should stick to areas like representative democracy and education where member states genuinely have a few things left in common.