As Meghan Markle made her way down the aisle of St George’s Chapel to marry Prince Harry, it was her painstakingly handcrafted silk tulle veil that most effectively captured Britain’s imperial past. The national flower of each of the fifty-three Commonwealth countries was embroidered into the 16½-foot veil. This, depending on your point of view, was either a ‘poetic moment’ (‘every single one of those countries also journeyed up the aisle with her’, the dress designer said) or an attempt to reclaim ‘the bloody history of colonialism as a point of celebration’, as one US historian put it.
The Commonwealth of Nations, long the most underwhelming of multilateral organisations, has recently regained international attention. The Brexit vote has revived fanciful political discussion of an ‘Empire 2.0’ arising from the ashes of the European experiment, while polls have shown that most Britons are not only proud of the imperial legacy but also remarkably ignorant of it.
The replacement of the defunct British Empire with the Commonwealth (officially set up in 1949) has been an unusual and fraught postcolonial project. The Commonwealth is now developing a mythic dimension at odds with its actual achievements. The institution could have been the ideal forum for debating the legacy