The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 3:56 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford 3:56 pm, 27th June 1996

What the hon. Gentleman has said confirms our impressions, although, as I said, the pressures on the British Council's budget have been eased, as a result—I hope that this will not embarrass my right hon. Friend the Minister—of some doughty fighting in the Foreign Office for the modern interests of this country, and for updating people's out-of-date views about what really matters when it comes to protecting and promoting those interests. The new focus for which we have called means recognising, in shaping our industrial and trade policies, that the interests and opportunities for British business now lie as much in the emerging markets—many, as I have said, in Commonwealth countries—as in the European markets that are geographically nearer to home.

Although our Committee divided into small groups, it covered a good deal of ground throughout the planet, visiting Commonwealth countries. A comment that we heard repeatedly was that Britain's Commonwealth connections, and the integration in a global network of communications and friendships that goes with them, were the envy of our trading competitors. Those competitors cannot understand why we, the British, have not exploited them to greater advantage. Here we are, at the centre of a gigantic system of world communications in which either Mandarin Chinese or English is being learnt—those will be the only languages left that matter to the entire commercial planetary business—yet we do not seem to have realised the full potential that lies before us, and the full possibilities of what could be a glittering global asset: the Commonwealth network. That network is ready made and inherited—perhaps through luck rather than good judgment, but it is there for us to use.

Perhaps it was understandable that, for a few decades after the end of empire, there would be a period of trauma and uncomfortable adjustment, and that people would feel that perhaps the Commonwealth was all to do with a better yesterday. However, it should never be forgotten that the unwinding of the British empire was, for the most part, an amazingly peaceful and constructive affair, despite one or two tragedies.

That era is over and so is its successor phase of decolonisation. In the closing words of our report, we state: A new global pattern opens out in which the competition to maintain, let alone advance, living standards will be more intense than ever. That is especially true of countries in Europe, as we are. The report continues: In this new situation the United Kingdom has both friends and opportunities. Who are those friends? They turn out to be our old friends who are also our new friends. They should be embraced, so that the British interest can be promoted in a firm and friendly way and so that the network of the Commonwealth, which is one of the most remarkable developments of the modern age, can be used to the benefit of all who live in it and, indeed, of all mankind.