The first Commonwealth Summit to be hosted in London for 40 years was held in April 2018. The two-day Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) followed three days of civil society and business forums and one day of ministerial meetings. British senior ministers and many members of the royal family addressed the Youth, Women's, People's, and Business Forums. Heads of government adopted a Blue Charter, new guidelines for election observation, an agenda for trade and investment connectivity and a cyber security declaration, but the only matter to get serious media mention was their endorsement of the Queen's wish that Prince Charles would one day succeed her as head of the Commonwealth.
The shortest ever Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) took place in London and Windsor from 19 to 20 April 2018, a couple of weeks after the publication of an authoritative book by the director of the University of London's Institute of Commonwealth Studies suggesting that the Commonwealth has lost its relevance in the contemporary world. In The Empires New Clothes: the Myth of the Commonwealth Philip Murphy is especially critical of the notion being touted by Leavers that the Commonwealth will substitute for the European Union in post-Brexit Britain.
Yet, in spite of such fanciful expectations (or simple indifference about the Commonwealth in Britain), and the brevity of the April 2018 Chogm, the week-long Commonwealth Summit was hailed as the largest meeting of heads of government ever held in London. It was the first Chogm to meet there for 40 years and London's largest international political gathering since the inaugural United Nations General Assembly in 1946. How do we explain these contrasting pictures?
The last Chogm in Britain, the Edinburgh meetings of 1997, inaugurated the tri-sector Commonwealth, which has evolved steadily in the 21st century. Voluntary, civil society and corporate sectors rise to rival the inter-governmental Commonwealth, which gradually declines in significance. The Business Forum, the Youth Forum and the People's Forum began to take up as much time and attention as the official and political meetings, attracting the participation of several thousand enthusiasts. The Women's Forum was added in 2015. Back in 2005 Don McKinnon, as secretary-general, suggested that a new name should be bestowed on the Chogm Week to take account of the tri-sector element. In the build-up to the 2018 meetings 'Commonwealth Summit' was the label used by Tim Hitchens, former British ambassador to Japan and one-time private secretary to the Queen, who headed the Chogm task force.
The voluntary and corporate sectors were given enhanced prominence by the location of the Youth, People's and Women's Forums in the same venue, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. They were also joined by the Business Forum (meeting separately in the City Guildhall and the Mansion House) for one day of combined activities. At the same time the British prime minister and other senior ministers and numerous members of the royal family took a prominent part in all the pre-Chogm forums. Thus, Chogm-proper came almost as two-day tail end activity after the three days of wide-ranging and stimulating dialogue in the business, youth, women's, and voluntary sectors.
For their part heads of government had a brief opening ceremony in Buckingham Palace, an executive session in Lancaster House and a one-day retreat at Windsor Castle. There, for their 'close and intimate' discussions they were ensconced in a huge circle of armchairs in the spacious Waterloo Chamber, sitting under the gaze of portraits of the civil and military leaders who re-ordered Europe with the defeat of Napoleon. Although in the closing press conference the president of Ghana expressed gratitude for their opportunity to 'visit great monuments to British civilization, it must have occurred to some of his colleagues that the symbolism was more appropriate for an EU summit than their gathering of mainly small and vulnerable states.
Preparing for the London Summit the hosts had frankly...