Britain's leading position in international trade was built primarily on networks of private businesses. It was not until the 1930s that these began to be replaced by governmental networks. Traditional networks, and here we can include the Commonwealth, were erode during the 1950s and the 1960s. It was also at this time that we began to see the end of the London Docks as a major hub for global trade. Rotterdam has replaced London.
Politically, the tide also turned against the Commonwealth. The failed adventure in Suez in 1956, (which involved the invasion of a former Commonwealth state), brought into question Britain's position as a leading world power. Then when the Macmillan government ceased investing in traditional partnerships, and began to move towards Europe, the African dominions were largely abandoned economically and forced to develop new links and trading blocs.
Canada, which had the second largest economy in the Commonwealth, was already more closely tied with the US in economic terms. Australia, which tried to turn to London for much needed development aid after the Second World War had been refused and instead took a loan from the World Bank of $100 million in 1950. This was due to the inability of Britain to resume its place on the world stage as a major capital exporter. Efforts to persuade Britain to invest in other development projects met with little success - the money was simply not there - and so commonwealth states were forced to turn to the US. Canada had become a significant capital exporter, although its investments were mainly in the US. Britain's inability to supply capital was replaced by the 1960s with unwillingness. Britain was rapidly losing face, and the Commonwealth states were rapidly developing new networks.
Harold Wilson made some half-hearted attempts to restore the trade networks with the Commonwealth, but these were unsuccessful. When Macmillan began the process of applying for EEC membership, he was forced to scrap Commonwealth food preferences in favour of the Common Agricultural Policy. (Britain had promised that in negotiations with the EEC, Commonwealth food preferences would remain in place, but did not deliver on the promise). Nations that depended on exporting to the UK, such as New Zealand, were faced with losing their markets. In agricultural exports, as in finance, the Commonwealth states were forced to develop new networks.
Some minimal compensation was obtained for those countries that lost their markets when we did eventually join the EEC, and it is interesting to note that some of them, including New Zealand, are to be compensated for loss of trade as a result of Romanian and Bulgarian accession.
Does the Commonwealth need us?
Too often, when people talk about turning to the Commonwealth, they really mean 'English speaking white people'. When Nigel Farage, in answer to President Barroso's state of the union address today, spoke about the Commonwealth as our "Kith & Kin", I wonder exactly how he is related to the people of Rwanda, Pakistan, Nigeria, Lesotho, Tonga etc.
The Canadian economy is now largely integrated with that of the US, and the country is a member of NAFTA. Australia is emerging fast, and the Australia - Japan Free Trade Agreement is probably far more interesting to them than an attempted rapprochement with a tired and disoriented country on the other side of the world. Those who long for the days of the old Commonwealth are missing one vital fact - the partners we abandoned in the middle of the last century want to live in the future, not the past. They simply don't need us!