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Can we mark Commonwealth Day without being English?

By Macharia Munene | Mar 20th 2022 | 4 min read

Queen Elizabeth against a backdrop of flags for Commonwealth Day. [Courtesy]

The modern Commonwealth of Nations is a troubled global organisation of 54 countries that struggles to be relevant by celebrating Commonwealth Day. Different from what its 19th and early 20th Centuries creators had in mind, it is largely a product of two conflicting forces about the future of the empire. One was on increasing decision making powers in the various parts of the empire or dominions.

Former Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher lamented, “I have had no say whatever about imperial policy” and asserted that “there must be some change.” The other force was a desire to instil, particularly in children, the importance and goodness of the empire. As of 1904, Empire Day started in England “to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among empire citizens” and to be proud children of “such a glorious empire.” Empire Day evolved into Commonwealth Day in 1958, still stressing sentimental oneness and allegiance to the English monarch. As of 1977, that Day was fixed to be in the second Monday of March.

The Commonwealth currently contains more than previous British imperial subjects. The base is the mixing of white English colonizers and their colonized ‘natives’ coming together to claim to be Commonwealth citizens. While some former British colonies, like Burma, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, and Jordan stayed out of that arrangement, others that were not British colonies chose to join because the Commonwealth developed some magnetic pull that in post-colonial times attracted such countries as Rwanda and Mozambique although they were not English colonized.

The Commonwealth, therefore, is not any longer an assemblage of white dominions trying to figure out how to maintain their Englishness and still acquire autonomy in matters of defence and foreign policy. Besides Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, other prospective dominions were Southern Rhodesia and Kenya where white settlers were in big numbers.

They all celebrated ‘Empire Day’ as their right to rule the world and make ‘natives’ to go along. In colonial Kenya, just as in other British colonies in Africa, Empire Day was time for the young to sing ‘God Save the King/Queen’ and to glorify British imperialism. Events in England, such as the 1937 coronation of King George VI, were also events in Kenya.

Children in primary schools remember the bright ones like Julius Gikonyo Kiano receiving coronation medallions bearing pictures of young King George VI and the new queen. In colonial Kenya, every white man was ‘king’ to some native but they all paid allegiance to the real king in England.

With the decolonization movement in high gear in the 1950s, the commonwealth stopped being just white British. UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, he of the ‘Wind of Change’ fame, suggested changes in emphasis from Empire Day to Commonwealth Day in 1958. The change in emphasis was particularly acceptable to independent Kenya which remained sentimentally attached to England’s Queen Elizabeth. The sentimentality is personal to the Queen and her family. She and her husband Philip were at the Tree Tops Hotel in Nyeri when her father, George VI, died in February 1952 at a time when colonial Kenya was simmering with Mau Mau undercurrents. Although the Mau Mau followed her activities closely, burned the Tree Tops and even mocked her 1953 coronation by having their own coronation of a ‘queen’, there was no personal animosity towards Elizabeth and the commonwealth.

Given that in anti-colonial circles, Kenya and India were close, Kenya followed the Indian model of being in the Commonwealth; a republic with its own head of state but not a dominion. It then participated fully in Commonwealth activities. This included the Commonwealth Day events which entailed flag-waving, prayer services at Westminster Abbey, the Queen greeting Commonwealth dignitaries, and delivering a message to Commonwealth citizens.

As members celebrated Commonwealth Day on Monday, many questions linger on the value of the Commonwealth. It is different in that it seemingly lacks thrill. Elizabeth, having delegated her function to Prince Charles, will be missing. There are divisions along religious and racial lines that afflict roughly 2.4 billion people.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is internally troubled even as it tries to reconcile differences and appears lost. Patricia Scotland, the current secretary-general is on the way out which opened the avenue for Kenya to propose Monica Juma. But Juma withdrew her candidature in unclear circumstance.

The Commonwealth Day has sentimental value and is symbolic of continuing conflicting ideals; desired autonomy within and feelings of unity in the remnants of conceptual British Empire. With the territorial empire gone, the feeling of Commonwealth unity is constantly under threat.

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