Young people with the flags of Commonwealth Countries.
A network with strong ties of culture, language, and values. Young people with the flags of Commonwealth Countries.. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

June 2018

The Commonwealth is a network connecting many of the fastest growing nations on Earth, with strong ties of language, culture, values, and mutual appreciation. Research for the British Council suggests it will be more not less important in the future.

As the UK recently took on the role of Chair of the Commonwealth for 2018-2020, the British Council asked young leaders from each of the Commonwealth regions to reflect on the really big challenges facing young people – and their countries – and how the connecting power of the Commonwealth might help to find solutions. As the world gets smaller and more connected, and power diffuses across it, there is every reason to believe that the Commonwealth will have an increased relevance. 

Old Friends, New Partners

According to the Commonwealth Secretariat, the combined GDP of Commonwealth countries is likely to reach $13 trillion by 2020, overtaking that of the Eurozone. Its population – which represents around a third of the population of the world – is four times larger than that of the EU and is growing faster. Many of its members share similar legal and constitutional arrangements as well as historical links. In many cases they already cooperate with each other on trade and security. Perhaps more importantly, the Commonwealth represents a strong network at a time when globalisation is rendering international networks ever more important.

The combined GDP of Commonwealth countries is likely to reach $13 trillion by 2020, overtaking that of the Eurozone. Its population – which represents around a third of the population of the world – is four times larger than that of the EU and is growing faster

Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of the Commonwealth is that it really represents a family of dozens of different societies, associations, organisations and charities, most of them grass-roots, engaged in different types of civil society and cultural relations work. In this respect the organisation is a lot less of a top-down structure and more of an organic people-to-people network than other similar international groupings. Arguably, in the modern, networked world, this represents a significant and growing advantage. 

Commonwealth countries are linked by language and culture. Membership is dependent on adherence to certain values, such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, as set out in the Commonwealth Charter. These are not mere formalities: unlike other groups like the EU, NATO, or ASEAN, several member states have in the past been suspended from the organisation for failing to meet these standards. In recent years the Commonwealth has attracted new members such as Rwanda and Mozambique. 

A Renewed Relevance?

The results of research by Ipsos MORI for the British Council into the perceptions of young people across the G20 suggest that mutual appreciation and close connections between Commonwealth countries and the UK are likely to continue in the future.

For example, levels of trust in the UK’s people, government and institutions are higher in the Commonwealth countries than in any other regional grouping in the G20. The G20 Commonwealth countries typically reveal higher levels of all dimensions of trust than the G20 average by 8-10 percentage points. The UK is perceived particularly well by them in terms of how well it supports and upholds important global values. More than 50% of people surveyed in the G20 Commonwealth countries of India, Australia, Canada and South Africa thought the UK upheld values well, often at a similar level to how well they thought their own country upheld values. Belief that the UK upholds those values was 14 percentage points higher in the Commonwealth countries than in the G20 overall, and 25 percentage points higher than in the EU countries. 

Across a range of areas, the UK was perceived as particularly attractive to young people in Commonwealth nations. For instance, the UK was the top study destination for young Canadians, and second for other Commonwealth countries. Canada and Australia were also rated very highly as attractive study destinations by young people from the other Commonwealth countries. The UK was also ranked highly as an attractive source of culture, with around 30% of young people from the major Commonwealth countries finding it attractive. These results are largely mirrored by the perceptions of young British people about those Commonwealth countries.

The Commonwealth nations and the UK have much stronger people-to-people connections than the G20 average. Around a third of people had friends in their country who were from the UK. This was as high as 36% in Australia (a quarter of whose young people had visited the UK), against a G20 average of 18%. Again, a very high proportion of people in the Commonwealth had family either living in or from the UK – this was as high as 40% in South Africa – against a G20 average of 15%. 

The EU referendum result had a significant net positive effect on the UK’s perceived attractiveness in the G20 Commonwealth countries of India, South Africa, Australia and Canada; with 32% of young people surveyed in those countries describing a positive impact on their views of the UK’s attractiveness

Furthermore, the EU referendum result had a significant net positive effect on the UK’s perceived attractiveness in the G20 Commonwealth countries of India, South Africa, Australia and Canada; with 32% of young people surveyed in those countries describing a positive impact on their views of the UK’s attractiveness, as opposed to 20% reporting a negative impact. There was also a positive impact on their likelihood of visiting the UK, studying here, making friends with British people, or consuming British arts and culture. 

When asked whether the referendum decision would make people more, about the same or less likely to engage with the UK across a range of areas, those from the Commonwealth countries envisaged more engagement. In Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India, 6%, 8%, 19%, and 28% respectively said they were more likely to trade with the UK. 

So leaving the European Union may positively benefit the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth and its peoples. The mutual appreciation shown by the research to be shared by many young people from its major countries suggests a flourishing future for the Commonwealth, and one which the UK would be wise to embrace. This should start at home, with greater efforts to increase the British public’s awareness of the Commonwealth. 

As Lord Howell of Guildford has said to Insight: ‘We need to get knowledge of the Commonwealth into our schools to reach children, who know nothing about it. Whenever we have tried to spread the message we’ve found a vast welling up of interest in every aspect of the Commonwealth’. 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Advisor and Insight Editor, British Council

Technical note: 

  • Commissioned by the British Council, Ipsos MORI conducted an online survey across all 19 countries of the G20, interviewing 18-34 year olds with a minimum of secondary education. The first wave was conducted between 23 May – 16 June 2016 and the second wave was conducted between 8 September – 16 October 2016. Each country had a sample size of around 1,000. The total sample size of all G20 countries was 18,010, and the sample size for the Commonwealth countries surveyed (Australia, Canada, India, South Africa) was 3,998.
  • In each market, the data is weighted to be representative of the national population by age (18-24 vs. 25-34) and gender. Additionally, the sample of the second wave is weighted to match the sample profile of the first wave on the following variables: interlocking age and gender quotas, education, area of residence, and employment status. 

See also