The Empire’s New Clothes

The Myth of the Commonwealth

April 2018 9781849049467 320pp
July 2021 9781787384934 320pp


In the wake of Brexit, the Commonwealth has been identified as an important body for future British trade and diplomacy, but few know what it actually does. How is it organised and what has held it together for so long? How important is the monarch’s role as Head of the Commonwealth? Most importantly, why has it had such a troubled recent past, and is it realistic to imagine that its fortunes might be reversed?

​In The Empire’s New Clothes,​ Murphy strips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution afflicted by imperial amnesia. He offers a personal perspective on this complex and poorly understood institution, and asks if it can ever escape from the shadow of the British Empire to become an organisation based on shared values, rather than a shared history.


‘There has been a good deal written seeking to explain Brexit, but [this is] my favourite. . .  The director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies elegantly dissects the fantasy of Leavers that having lost its political relevance this institution could turbo-charge Empire 2.0.’ — Times Higher Education Winter Reads 2018

‘Murphy’s analysis is fascinating. He brings a sceptical eye to the organisation and discusses its internal dealings with wry detachment.’ — Literary Review

‘Philip Murphy’ s new book is an eloquent counterblast to the claim that the Commonwealth can be a substitute for the European Union (EU) in post-Brexit Britain’s global role . . . it is also the first authoritative survey of the evolution of the Commonwealth in the twenty-first century. A very easy . . . fun book to read.’ —W. David McIntyre, The Round Table

‘Philip Murphy’s is a witty, informative and much-needed critique from an insider who writes with a wealth of experience as well as an astute awareness of the gap between rhetoric and reality. His book is a sobering reminder that the Commonwealth has lost whatever relevance it once had and is ready for reinvention — or burial.’ — Shashi Tharoor, author of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India 

‘A thoughtful and provocative inquiry into Britain’s current role as a leading country of the Commonwealth, this iconoclastic book explodes many myths about Britain’s empire. It is sure to stimulate much debate, and will cause readers to nod vigorously or sigh in exasperated disagreement.’ — Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, author of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World

‘A brilliant and unique book. At times witty, always insightful and disarmingly honest, it is also brave. Many won’t like the message Murphy has to convey, despite his position of almost unassailable authority. He exquisitely conveys the evolution of the Commonwealth: its astoundingly slippery identity, its meaning(lessness), its struggles with hypocrisy, its grinding focus on process and disregard for output, and its empty pronouncements.’ — Ashley Jackson, Professor of Imperial and Military History at King’s College London, and author of The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction

‘A brilliant demolition of the myth of commonwealth and of the power of imperial nostalgia that leaves one unsure whether to laugh or cry at the cynicism of those who pretend to believe in it, or the naivety of those who condemn its malevolent power. The brutal reality, it shows, is that that Brexit will reduce the long tiny UK commonwealth trade. A timely and necessary book.’ — David Edgerton, Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London, and author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History

‘In this skilful, witty and deeply-informed book, Philip Murphy has punctured the mythology that still hangs over the Commonwealth. He shows convincingly that inertia rather than shared values or common interests has been its main “glue”. Recent talk in post-Brexit Britain of a “return” to the Commonwealth betrays a depth of ignorance bordering on fantasy, he suggests, comprehensively skewering the nonsense that the Commonwealth could be a substitute for European Union membership. A brilliant, thought-provoking, and highly readable study that should be essential reading for those who now guide our affairs.’ — John Darwin, Nuffield College, University of Oxford; author of Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

‘Mercurial, maverick and mischievous, Murphy writes as an outsider-insider, having been head of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies for a number of years. This is going to shake the tree. And about time.’ — Joanna Lewis, Associate Professor of International History, London School of Economics. Times Higher Education Books of the Year

‘It is difficult to disagree with Murphy’s conclusions.’ — British Journal of Canadian Studies


Philip Murphy is Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London. He has published extensively on British decolonisation and, recently, on the Commonwealth-wide role of the British monarchy. He is Co-Editor of The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.

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