After years of viewing it as a virtual irrelevance, an embarrassing colonial hangover not quite in synch with the Blairite vision of Britain, and as something with little more purpose than a means of Her Majesty being able to maintain a ceremonial superiority over the old imperial possessions, the Commonwealth has suddenly acquired fresh significance. Its potential importance to the UK in the wake of Brexit has belatedly awoken the Government to the value of overseas connections made at a time when our only contact with most of our nearest neighbours was on the battlefield. This renewed interest in an institution that has been under the noses of Government throughout the heated debate over the EU has drawn attention to the Commonwealth’s incumbent Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland.
Gordon Brown’s former Attorney General was elected to the post last year, though her leadership has attracted considerable criticism; she is accused both of appointing cronies to senior positions in the Commonwealth Secretariat and of lavishing funds on the refurbishment of her official residence. Dissatisfaction with Lady Scotland has even been connected to the fact the Queen will not be attending a Commonwealth function at Marlborough House in March – the kind of piss-up at which Brenda’s name would normally be first on the guest-list.
That a reject from an ineffective administration should end up running an organisation with more historical and sentimental ties to Britain than any other is not unlike the way in which the governorship of Hong Kong was handed to Chris Patten after losing his seat at the 1992 General Election. The Commonwealth was clearly regarded as low priority when Baroness Scotland was elected to the post of Secretary-General; why else would it be awarded to a politician with such a mediocre CV?
And yet, with fanciful talk of nations allegedly queuing up to sign trade deals with the UK once Article 50 is out of the way (don’t hold your breath) and with Theresa May falling over herself to pay homage to the Donald in the hope that Mr President will translate his apparent affection for Britain into action, the Commonwealth is already there, as it was long before Europe even had its ‘economic community’.
What eventually became the British Empire was a product of maritime trading to begin with; it therefore seems only fitting that it should come full circle and return to its original function, especially when the rest of those countries forming an orderly queue have got to hang around for an indefinite period before they can actually start signing any trade deals.
Since Britain signed up to the great European experiment in 1972, the Commonwealth’s role as a network of nations has been reduced to a half-pint Olympics every four years on one hand and (in the case of Hong Kong) an inconvenience to be crushed in the stampede to suck up to China on the other. We have been cutting off our nose to spite our face for decades where the Commonwealth is concerned.
Never an international organisation with military or economic clout along the lines of NATO or the EU, the Commonwealth has always exuded the air of an old-school Pall Mall gentleman’s club, though more recent reforms – such as the introduction of a constitution in 2012 – have attempted to add a more professional edge to its amateurish ambience. The Queen has regarded heading the Commonwealth as a vital aspect of her job description since 1952, but successive governments from the 60s onwards have undervalued its potential and have viewed it more through the prism of post-imperial shame rather than recognise the possibilities it presents to a country that has relied for too long on the empty promises of Europe.
Chiming with the belated awareness of its new relevance, the Department for International Development has declared the Commonwealth is in urgent need of reform, with particular off-the-record reference to Baroness Scotland’s leadership. Complimenting this opinion is the Government’s decision to appoint a handful of experienced diplomatic heavyweights to oversee the next Commonwealth summit – a sign of the changing attitude towards what the Commonwealth actually represents.
The unpredictable President Trump should serve as a warning to the PM not to place all Britain’s trading eggs in one economic basket, especially when we already have 52 countries that don’t have to endure the interminable withdrawal from Europe before their signatures can be added to the dotted line.
MARY TYLER MOORE (1936-2017)
‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’, which ran on US TV from 1970-77, wasn’t the first American sitcom to feature a woman as its lead character; but unlike its illustrious 50s predecessor, ‘I Love Lucy’, the series fronted by the actress who had played ‘the wife’ in ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ focused on a single, childless woman in her early 30s with a career. It might not sound like a ground-breaking premise today, but in 1970 – after twenty years of the ‘Hi, Honey; I’m home’ formula – it was.
And while the series shied away from overtly ‘feminist’ labelling, it was undoubtedly a trailblazer that both mirrored its times and pointed the way to the future.
Perhaps more than dramas, it has often been American sitcoms that have captured the zeitgeist of US society and have ended up becoming cherished institutions by the end of their runs. ‘M*A*S*H’, ‘Cheers’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ all climaxed with record-breaking viewing figures as the nation said a collective goodbye to their surrogate families; but it’s probably fair to say none of them would have aired in the first place had not ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ laid the foundations for them.
Mary Tyler Moore’s star vehicle wouldn’t have worked quite so well had it relied on her own comic charisma alone; it also contained the ingredients that other sitcoms followed, with a strong ensemble cast of quirky characters, several of whom proved so popular that they started the vogue for the spin-off series, the most successful being ‘Rhoda’. The show centred on the staff behind the scenes at a TV newsroom in the unfamiliar city of Minneapolis, with Moore playing the associate producer; but it was not so much the go-getting setting as some of the subject matters that tentatively broke new ground for a mainstream sitcom.
Reflecting the relaxation of strict morality in the US during the immediate post-60s, ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ touched upon the likes of sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, infertility and prostitution. Few would bat any eyelids today, but back at a time when sponsors would threaten to pull out at the merest hint of anything not strictly ‘family friendly’, it was an admirable risk-taking move forward; moreover, when contrasted with the absence of such topics from British sitcoms at the same time, it was relatively unique.
One reason why the show was able to challenge the staid subject matters that preceded it was that it was produced by Moore’s own production company, MTM; when the series finished its run, MTM continued to provide the American networks with a string of hits like ‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘St Elsewhere’ and ‘Newhart’.
Although Mary Tyler Moore never quite recaptured the success she enjoyed in the 70s, she continued to work in cinema and TV until the early 2010s. Her death at the age of 80 may bring her mortal existence to an end, but like anyone fortunate to have worked in Moore’s chosen medium, the career is immortal; and somewhere in the world, probably right now, there’ll be a channel showing an episode of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. There no doubt always will be.
© The Editor