What of the present? UK-Commonwealth trade continued to decline until 1998, since when it has undergone a slight revival. This has come while the UK and, from 2004, Malta and Cyprus have been within the EU. There remain some cultural and linguistic factors easing trade between Commonwealth members. But, as in Arnold Smith’s time, the 21st-century Commonwealth as an organisation aspires to an economic role which complements the other commitments of its members.
What might all this tell us about Brexit? The experience of the 1930s illustrates that there are limits to supranational economic cooperation without some pooling of sovereignty. And the tough trade bargaining back then certainly gives no reason to think that post-Brexit bilateral trade deals would be easier with Commonwealth members than with anyone else. Many, such as New Zealand, prefer dealing with the larger market of the EU.
In any case, the 1930s Commonwealth transformed in the 1960s to become the loose association that we recognise today. As early as 1966, it was clear to the leading members of the London-based Federation of Commonwealth Chambers of Commerce that “the Commonwealth is not a trading entity”. Whatever the possibilities of bilateral deals, the idea of a Commonwealth alternative to the EU has long been and remains an illusion.
Although many Brexiteers may be sentimental about the Commonwealth (read: dreaming of having our empire back) and it remains a valuable organisation, we cannot suddenly create new export markers simply based on political will.