Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Philip Murphy's "The Empire’s New Clothes"

Philip Murphy is Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London. He has published extensively on the history of British decolonization and, recently, on the Commonwealth-wide role of the British monarchy.

Murphy applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Empire's New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth, and reported the following:
I must confess to having only just heard of Ford Madox Ford’s ‘page ninety-nine’ rule. But in relation to my new book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth, it performs a particular sort of magic. Page ninety-nine, and the chapter to which it belongs, deal with the role of Queen Elizabeth II. No surprise there, you might think. After all, in so far as international media pays any attention to the Commonwealth anymore, it is as a peg on which to hang stories about the British royal family. The Queen is its ‘Head’ as well as being the sovereign of 16 of its 53 member states, nearly all of which were formerly part of the British Empire. It is an entirely voluntary association of states, the post-imperial foundations of which were firmly laid in 1949 when the continued membership of recently-independent and soon-to-be republican India was confirmed. The latest meeting of its national leaders, which took place in London in April (just as my book was published in the UK) served only to reinforce the royal connection. Keen to cement the country’s extra-European relationships in anticipation of leaving the European Union (EU), the British government put a large amount of effort into preparations for the Summit. It anticipated, correctly, that a gathering based at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, with almost a full complement of the junior royals floating about like caddies at an international golf tournament, would be an irresistible draw for Commonwealth leaders. And (in the Summit’s sole, really tangible outcome) it managed to secure confirmation that Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, would be the organisation’s next Head.

So how important has the Queen been to the story of the modern Commonwealth? Well very, in the sense that someone who has been sovereign for 66 years can exert a subtle but profound influence over the basic terms of political debate within a country. Page ninety-nine of my book says this about the Queen:
In her public utterances, she frequently speaks of the importance of her Christian faith and of the value of the Commonwealth. Perhaps the greatest mark of her achievement in negotiating all the pitfalls of constitutional monarchy, is that over decades in which adherence to Christianity has been in steady decline in the UK, and the Commonwealth has come under fire from senior politicians and the press, she has succeeded in presenting both as being somehow ‘above’ any sort of controversy. An extremely long reigning monarch can shape the political landscape like an iceberg: by slowly maintaining the same course they can exert a powerful influence on our collective values.
But the prominence given to the Queen in recent years is also a result of the fact that the Commonwealth hasn’t really achieved anything very newsworthy. And in the seven out of its eight chapters which deal with matters other than her role, my book seeks to explain why. Essentially, the Commonwealth is a Potemkin village among international organisations: behind a façade of bright promises to be tackling an impossibly wide range of global ills lies almost precisely nothing. But while the reality of the organisation clearly poses no real threat to anyone, the the book argues that the myth of the Commonwealth – that very idea of getting something for nothing – remains a real danger to UK foreign policy, as the reckless suggestions that the Commonwealth might in some sense provide an alternative to British membership of the EU have recently demonstrated.
Learn more about The Empire's New Clothes at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue