Erikka Askeland: How Commonwealth can leave you poorer

AN INTERNATIONAL stir occurred when president of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, announced he was withdrawing his country from the Commonwealth group of nations.

Erikka Askeland. Picture: TSPL

His accusation that it was a “neo-colonial institution” was mainly met with the response of “well, durrr”. This has been pretty obvious since the 54-strong group was formed in 1949, mainly out of former territories of the then-since-waned British Empire.

But then, having claimed to have concocted a cure for the Aids virus out of herbs and fruit juice among other barmy ideas, it is generally held that Mr Jammeh gives run of the mill African dictators a bad name.

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Having been born in a country that is a member of this hodge podge of nations, I would tell Mr Jammeh to relax. Canada, my homeland, was one of the first states to join the club and I can tell you it’s pretty tame. The group has a duly splendid office in the Grade One listed Marlborough House in London and generally aims to be the good guys. Members have no particular obligations except to pledge to a vague statement on shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

You can imagine since the group was founded there have been a few awkward moments with some of its members. South Africa was frozen out when it brought in apartheid in the 1960s but has since rejoined. But being a member is less about having to face fearsome consequences if you diverge from the rules. The sanction for being a Commonwealth rogue is not unlike being given a hard stare for entering the club without wearing a tie.

Despite the excitement next year of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the fact is the benefits of being a citizen of a member state have diminished. When I first arrived in the UK, us lucky members of the Commonwealth gang used to have our own special queue at passport control. But then the EU muscled in and took our spot, leaving us with the slow plodders they seem to assign especially to the “other nations” kiosk. It is true that being in the Commonwealth gave me the chance to initially come to the UK on a “working holidaymaker” visa, which is almost always the status of young Canadians and Australians working bar jobs in London. It also meant I was eligible to vote once I became a UK resident. Although I note the charming free thinkers of the pressure group Migration Watch have started huffing and puffing about this, as it seems they worry the million or so voters from India, Australia and other places might not be supportive of coalition austerity measures.

But there are occasions when membership in the Commonwealth club actively works against you. Consider my grandmother’s friend Ida Crisp.

She’s a lovely sort, an Essex girl who married a Canadian Second World War soldier. They retired to Canada, near children and grandchildren. Ida was still eligible to collect her British pension when she turned 60 sometime in the 1980s.

The day you start getting a pension should be a happy (albeit increasingly unlikely) occasion. But what dawned on Ida, now a widow, is her pension payment was “frozen” in time, and would not rise with inflation. So 30-some years later, she still gets about £35 a week, compared to £110.15 for everyone else.

The sticker is that this only applies to pensioners in Commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. If she’d moved to Florida, or Europe, or Hong Kong, she’d be on the full whack. Another weird quirk is when she visits family in the UK, she gets her full entitlement. But then it’s back to tight budgets and discount biscuits when she returns home.

You can imagine that quite a few people living abroad – about half a million of them – are upset by this. But the British government has steadfastly crossed its arms against them and has even fought their efforts to the European Court of Human Rights. Sure, the UK is skint, but petitioners argue that unfair is unfair, and that Britain saves more in terms of social service and NHS costs than if they all came back home.

The chairman of the International Consortium of British Pensioners has since called for Britain to be suspended from its role as head of the Commonwealth.

It probably won’t happen. But you wonder if it did, would anyone notice?